published Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

Upbeat offense

Dominant defense meets its UT match


by Wes Rucker
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KNOXVILLE -- The Tennessee football team's defensive unit started Saturday's scrimmage somewhere new -- on its heels.

"That was definitely different," junior defensive end Chris Walker said.

UT's first-team offense shocked the starting defense by setting the tone Saturday, as senior quarterback Jonathan Crompton promptly led the Volunteers into the end zone. Junior Nick Stephens then directed the second-team offense to the 1-yard line before the No. 2 defense held on fourth-and-goal.

Momentum never stayed with the defense for long.

Anyone who has watched the Vols practice the past several years understood Saturday's significance.

"I can't even tell you how good that felt," senior offensive guard Vladimir Richard said. "Well, actually, I can. It felt really, really good."

The defense has much more often than not set the tone in UT's practices and scrimmages the past several years. Lane Kiffin didn't like that, though, and made his stance clear after taking the head coaching position in December.

"If you're a good team, which we hope that we'll eventually be, it's going to go back and forth," Kiffin said. "If one side wins all the time, you've got a problem. That's when you're in 6-3 games or 50-48 games, and that's not what we're looking for."

Junior tight end Luke Stocker said the offense appreciated Kiffin's approach to solving the problem: Acknowledge it and then work hard to build the confidence to eliminate it.

"He told us that right away, and that's kind of the mentality we've all learned to grow with," Stocker said. "We kind of feel the same way. It's the offense's time to shine now.

"Everybody's getting what you might call a 'swag' about themselves on offense. You can see that day in and day out now, and that's a good thing for us. You can tell a big difference since Coach Kiffin and them came in. They kind of changed the whole mentality."

The offensive coaches met with their players moments before Saturday's scrimmage. They challenged the offensive line to win the line of scrimmage on the very first play, and then the second, and ultimately turn that momentum into a first-possession touchdown.

"It felt really good," Stocker said. "The first couple of days at fall camp, the defense kind of came out and beat up on us. We kind of set our minds as an offense that we were going to come out Saturday and just give it to them.

"And we went out and did what we planned to do."

The offense left the field on top Monday night, too. The nightcap of a grueling two-practice day was an old-fashioned goal-line drill. Players agreed to extend practice after the drill finished in a tie, and the offense powered in for scores on the final two plays.

Rather than limp their sore bodies off the field, the offensive players skipped and, in some cases, danced to the rap music blaring on Haslam Field.

"We're tired of getting smacked in the mouth," junior receiver Brandon Warren said. "At some point, your pride has to kick in."

The defense likely isn't done by any stretch. Several key players on that side -- including linebacker Rico McCoy, defensive lineman Wes Brown and cornerback Brent Vinson -- have been sidelined for at least parts of preseason camp. And UT coordinator Monte Kiffin's Tampa Bay Buccaneers defenses were never known for their lack of fight.

Darren Myles Jr. swore Saturday's second major scrimmage would be different, and fellow freshman safety Prentiss Waggner agreed.

"This is a big week for us," Waggner said. "The offense basically got the upper hand on us Saturday, so we've got to go in there and study our assignments more and work hard every day and try to get them back next week."

Added junior middle linebacker Nick Reveiz: "The offense is talking now, and they earned it. But we'll be back."

Though begrudgingly in many instances, the defenders generally admitted that more even practice competitions will benefit the team in the long run.

"It really is a good sign," Waggner said. "Ever since Coach Lane Kiffin came here, there's been more of a competition between the offense and the defense. We want to work the offense to get better, and they want to work us to get better ... and lately, it's been a better competition."

Reveiz said UT's offense is "just so much better than last year.

"The defense was really the tone-setters last year," Reveiz said. "But this year, sometimes the offense is like, 'Hey, defense, let's go. Let's pick it up. We're running all over y'all.' And that's when we'll pick it up.

"I think they've come out and have a new attitude about themselves, a new confidence, a new swag. They know they can run the ball, and they know they can pass the ball."

about Wes Rucker...

Twitter - @wesrucker Facebook - /tfpvolsbeat

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