KNOXVILLE -- When Derek Dooley coached at Louisiana Tech, he was so impressed by conference rival Boise State that he paid Broncos coach Chris Petersen the ultimate compliment.
"I told Chris, 'When I leave this league, I'm coming to visit you. I want to see you guys do things,'" Dooley said.
In retrospect, perhaps Dooley should have told Petersen, "When I leave this league, I'm flying to the Rocky Mountains with a blank check and returning with your defensive wunderkind."
That's basically what happened in January, when Dooley took the Tennessee job and swiped 33-year-old Boise defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.
Wilcox wasn't announced as the coordinator until early February, but Dooley had his man in mind well before that point.
"It was only natural to give Justin a call," Dooley said.
Tennessee defensive end Chris Walker returns an interception for a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Ohio, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2009, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
Aside from a 49-4 record, Wilcox's Broncos crew led the WAC in total defense and scoring defense all four seasons he was there. They typically stood with the nation's elite in both categories.
Boise crushed Pac-10 champion Oregon's powerful offense last season and did the same to previously undefeated TCU in the Fiesta Bowl.
"When you're coaching at a non-BCS school, it's always an interesting measure when you go play a team that's so much more talented that you," Dooley said. "I thought that was a great statement for Boise, because the knock on Boise by every BCS school is, 'Well, they don't play anybody.' Well here they played the Pac-10 champion, and they didn't allow a first down until the third quarter.
"You're talking about an (Oregon) offense that averaged about 40 points per game. That's not a fluke. That's not an accident. That's very impressive."
Wilcox also was impressed with Dooley's program-changing methods at Louisiana Tech, so he left one of college football's most successful programs -- two BCS bowl wins in four seasons -- and agreed to help rebuild one of the game's traditional powerhouses.
Wilcox said he has never regretted that decision.
"I loved it at Boise. I will always love those people and that place," he said. "But I'm with great people here, and the tradition here at Tennessee and the SEC is something that's unmatched.
"I'm fortunate, humbled and excited to be here and work with these guys. I couldn't be happier with the guys we've got here."
That's the good news. The bad news is that the Volunteers lost their four most productive defensive players from last season -- All-America safety Eric Berry, All-SEC defensive tackle Dan Williams, All-SEC weakside linebacker Rico McCoy and versatile defensive back Dennis Rogan.
And some of UT's best returning defenders -- including most of the starting linebacker corps -- are missing all contact drills in spring practice while rehabbing injuries. Plus, Wilcox is following in the footsteps of legendary defensive mastermind Monte Kiffin.
"When you step into a program like this, you're always going to follow somebody good," Wilcox said. "Monte Kiffin is probably as well-respected a defensive coach as there is in the history of football. So, no, I'm not Monte Kiffin. I'm not trying to be Monte Kiffin. I'm just going to do the best job I can do preparing our team and preparing for coaches.
"For me to step in here and try to be something I'm not, that wouldn't work for anybody."
Wilcox's peers said simply being himself will be just fine.
"You already see a defense that flies around and hits people," UT offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. "Right now, they're hitting us way too (dang) much, so yeah, whatever he's doing is a working."
The Vols' assistants seem just as bothered by Wilcox's age as Dooley did -- as in, they don't care.
"You guys put too much on that whole number of the age thing," Chaney said. "This is a guy with an unbelievable track record that's been very successful and very knowledgeable.
"Heck, if he was 12, that wouldn't bother me. He's good at what he does. As coaches, you want to surround yourself with great people and great coaches, and he fits everything Coach Dooley wanted when he put this staff together. I'm really pleased he's here."
UT wide receivers coach Charlie Baggett, a veteran with three-plus decades of NFL and major college experience, has been equally impressed.
"I've been around coaching for 34 years now, and my experience shows me and tells me that when you do see a young guy move that fast, there is a reason for it," Baggett said. "Most of the time, that means he's an excellent good football coach and a very smart person. And Justin fits right into that category."
Baggett and Dooley both coached against Wilcox's defenses in recent history -- Dooley at Louisiana Tech, Baggett at Washington -- and both admitted to losing a little sleep that week.
"We were fortunate to beat them," Baggett said. "They were really good. We were uptight going into that game, because even though we were in the Pac-10, the schemes that Justin put forth puts a lot of pressure on you. He really knows how to attack offenses."
Dooley shared similar words but added that he "loved" watching Boise's defenses when he didn't have to tangle with them.
"The No. 1 thing was watching how his players competed every Saturday," Dooley said. "The effort and the toughness and the discipline ... they were just fun to watch. I really believe -- and others who have really watched Boise the last five years know -- that Boise has really made a name for themselves on offense, but what really made them special is how good they are on defense. They're physical, they're relentless, and they have a good scheme.
"If we can do those same things here, we'll be in good shape."
Other contacts for Wes Rucker are www.twitter.com/wesrucker and www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.
Twitter - @wesrucker Facebook - /tfpvolsbeat