Tennessee defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox works with players, from left, Tyler Wills, Charles Karlosky and Grant Jessen during practice Wednesday, Mar. 31, 2010 at Haslam Field. This is Wilcox's first campaign with the Vols after spending the past four years as defensive coordinator at Boise State.
KNOXVILLE — The University of Tennessee football team has many reasons to be wary of seventh-ranked Oregon.
But the Volunteers have at least one reason for optimism. And it’s a legitimate reason.
UT’s Justin Wilcox has been one of the few defensive coordinators to crack the Ducks’ code the past few years.
“There is no magic defense out there,” Wilcox said Wednesday night. “There is no magic pill.”
But maybe there is.
And maybe UT’s 33-year-old defensive wunderkind has it.
Wilcox’s Boise State Broncos played eight quarters against Oregon the past two seasons. In seven of them, the Ducks scored a combined 21 points.
Oregon scored 19 points in the fourth quarter against Boise in 2008, but the Broncos led 37-13 after three periods and dropped back into mostly safe zone defenses.
Boise needed four quarters of pressure against the Ducks last season, and Wilcox and Co. delivered. They obliterated Oregon’s no-huddle, spread attack.
The Ducks averaged more than 36 points and 412 yards per game last season. Boise held them to eight points and 152 yards. The Ducks averaged more than 231 rushing yards. The Broncos held them to 31.
Many people around the country were stunned that night.
Derek Dooley wasn’t.
Then the head coach at Louisiana Tech, Dooley faced Boise every season in WAC play. He knew all about Wilcox.
“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.”
Dooley was impressed enough to bring Wilcox with him to UT.
The idea was for Wilcox to match wits on a weekly basis with the Southeastern Conference’s NFL junior varsity offenses.
But first, the Vols need their new coordinator to rediscover that magic pill one more time against his alma mater.
And Wilcox, an All-Pac-10 cornerback for Oregon in 1999, is determined to against dismantle the Ducks.
“My allegiance lies with the kids here on this team, with this program,” Wilcox said. “I haven’t been there a long time. But when you’re here and you work with the coaches here and the people and the fans and the kids on the team, especially, when they put it on the line every day for you, it’s not hard to have an allegiance to them. I’m proud to be from there. I have friends, some of my best friends in the world I made there, coaches that I played for are still there and I’m proud of that, and I love those guys and what they gave to me.
“But on [Saturday], it’s not about me and them. It’s about Tennessee versus Oregon, and I have no problem trying to do my best and do my part to help us win.”
The Vols might very well draw confidence from their coordinator heading into Saturday — why wouldn’t they? — but they won’t admit it.
“Obviously, Coach Wilcox is really smart and knows what he’s doing. That’s why Coach Dooley brought him here,” senior strongside linebacker LaMarcus Thompson said. “He’ll put us in the best positions for us to be successful. But no matter what he calls, we still have to go out there and execute.”
Senior middle linebacker Nick Reveiz and senior defensive end Chris Walker likened the Vols’ underdog mentality to Boise’s, but that’s where the comparisons stopped.
“We’re not banking on Boise,” Reveiz said. “We’re Tennessee.”
Dooley, after some gentle prodding, conceded that past experiences against have “probably helped” Wilcox.
“But it doesn’t mean he’s going to stop it,” Dooley added. “It just means you don’t look at the film and go, ‘What are they doing?’
“I’m not sure it’s an advantage as what y’all might try to make it out to be. A lot of teams have played Oregon. USC plays them every year, and they put about 41 on them last year. That didn’t help.”
Dooley channeled sandbagging father Vince Dooley when saying that, if anything, Oregon “learned a lesson” from its season-opening setback at Boise.
“And you can see they fixed that problem,” he said.
Dooley said the Vols have had “a few staph infections” this week, and that walk-on defensive tackle Minor Bowens missed Wednesday’s practice because of one.
The coach promptly put his team through a clinic on “proper shower technique.”
“Y’all think I’m kidding,” Dooley said with a straight face. “I told them we had the worst shower discipline of any team I’ve ever been around, so we talked a little bit about application of soap to the rag, and making sure you hit all your body. You can neglect it trying to cut corners, and it shows in how you practice and elsewhere.
“I’m hoping we show some improvement in that.”
Senior wide receiver starter Denarius Moore (ankle) returned to practice Wednesday on a limited basis, and coaches expect him to play Saturday.
“He’s obviously not going to have the work he would normally have (if) he practiced all week, but he’s a senior and hopefully he’ll be ready to go and know how to get ready,” Dooley said.
Junior center Cody Pope, who spent a few hours Tuesday night in the hospital undergoing “precautionary tests” for an undisclosed issue, returned to practice Wednesday on a limited basis and is also expected to play against the Ducks.
Senior tight end Luke Stocker worked Wednesday in a no-contact jersey because of a lingering shoulder issue, but he’s also expected to play Saturday.
Other contacts for Wes Rucker are www.twitter.com/wesrucker and www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.