published Thursday, October 24th, 2013

Tennessee Vols' defensive front must continue its improvement



University of South Carolina Gamecocks quarterback Connor Shaw (14) is wrapped up by University of Tennessee Volunteers defensive linemen Marlon Walls (58) and Daniel McCullers (98) at Neyland Stadium, in Knoxville, on Oct. 19, 2013.
University of South Carolina Gamecocks quarterback Connor Shaw (14) is wrapped up by University of Tennessee Volunteers defensive linemen Marlon Walls (58) and Daniel McCullers (98) at Neyland Stadium, in Knoxville, on Oct. 19, 2013.
Photo by C. B. Schmelter /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — Steve Stripling and his defensive linemen had the conversation on Wednesday.

As Tennessee's defensive line coach and his players reviewed the video of Tuesday's practice, he pointed out how much improvement his unit has made since earlier in the season.

"We were talking about [from] earlier in the year how much we've improved," Stripling said Wednesday after the Volunteers' practice ahead of Saturday's trip to top-ranked Alabama. "I think we're really improving. Obviously the challenges ahead are big-time, so we've got to really improve.

"All the things that we preach, it's showing up. I think our effort's better. Our technique's are obviously better. The mentality, the outward focus -- all those type things."

The Vols have 12 sacks through seven games after recording just 17 a season ago, and defensive linemen are responsible for all of this season's sacks. Seven have come from the six seniors on Tennessee's defensive line, a veteran bunch that's not been the most productive group. Those six players entered the season with just 10 career sacks.

Marlon Walls, a fifth-year defensive end, is experiencing a final-year renaissance. He leads the team with 4.5 sacks after a 2.5-sack game against the Gamecocks after registering just one sack -- against Buffalo in 2011 -- in the first three years of his career. Walls missed the 2010 season after tearing his Achilles' tendon during preseason practice.

Asked to explain his breakout, Walls quickly answered, "Steve Stripling, man."

"He preaches those inches, and I know coach [Butch] Jones said just last week how our philosophy was inches, but Coach Stripling did a great job this spring just letting us know that we're always one step away from the quarterback, and I think we took heed to that.

"We're finally starting to do the little things he's been telling us to do and teaching us to do, like reducing your shoulder or cutting the corner a little bit harder and creating a corner for yourself. All that takes away seconds from getting to the quarterback. I think we're finally starting to realize that he's telling us what to do, and we're starting to put it into action."

South Carolina ran for 218 yards against Tennessee, but the Vols' defensive line was at its best in the fourth quarter, when the Gamecocks managed just 15 yards of offense. Tennessee's front four, with the help of its secondary, made it uncomfortable for quarterback Connor Shaw and forced him to leave the pocket while limiting his scrambling ability.

"I think it's all of us just coming together as a unit, and the more togetherness we've been having, you can definitely see it on the field," end Jacques Smith said. "We've been watching film together, just doing a lot of the things that we used to not do together [or] as individuals, and now we're doing it as a unit. It's been showing on the field.

"I feel like this defensive line, every single game we're getting better. Every single practice we're getting better. We're taking all the coaching and all the details that Coach Strip has for us, and we're just trying to take it step-by-step and get better."

End Corey Miller has 13 of his 19 tackles this season in the past three games, and big defensive tackle Daniel McCullers, after a quiet start to the season, has 14 tackles and 4.5 for loss in that same stretch.

"I owe it all to the coaching staff," Miller said. "It starts with the coaches themselves, to the strength staff. These guys have worked us all winter and summer, and our effort is a lot better. Then when you have Coach Strip teaching the D-line, there's not a better defensive line coach in the nation, so I give him all the credit."

Each week the defensive linemen will fill out a sheet of an individual weakness on which to improve for the week and daily Stripling and the players will make note on if they focused and improved that element.

"We talk in military terms of [needing] 10,000 reps to perfect a movement," Stripling said. "We're not even close to that in our teaching. I think we're just further down that path, and I think the older guys have done a great job of handling it and providing leadership.

"Hopefully they are going to reap some of the rewards."

It's been a gradual improvement rather than a recent spike, Stripling said, and it'll need to continue for the rest of the season.

"The mindset here is, 'Hey, OK, we've done all right. There's a lot more we can do,'" Miller said. "We still have five or six games left. We've still got week after week that we can improve. We can improve, and then at the end of the season we can look back and celebrate what we've done."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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