KNOXVILLE -- The handful of new parts at his disposal has filled Justin Wilcox's mind with ideas.
The University of Tennessee defensive coordinator likes to run a defense with multiple formations, multiple looks and organized chaos aimed at confusing opposing offenses, but the Volunteers' mad scientist has to find out what he has to work with before he can materialize the ideas bouncing around in his head.
"It obviously gives you some more flexibility, especially in the defensive backfield, to play nickel and play some dime if the game warrants it," Wilcox said after UT's first practice in shoulder pads Thursday afternoon. "That's a big deal for us, but we've got to learn how to play the game first, and fundamentals are always going to be first with us. We're going to put all our stuff and they'll be overwhelmed early, but that's just part of fall camp for being a new guy."
The Vols signed 14 defensive players in February, including three junior college players: seven defensive backs, four linemen and three linebackers. Those players have received their introductions to a college football practice each of the last three evenings in separate workouts from the rest of the Vols. While they have battled the learning curve, UT's coaching staff is excited about the upgrades at size, speed and athleticism the class is providing.
"Potential gets everybody excited: coaches, fans, you guys -- we're all in the same boat," Wilcox said. "What we're going to be looking for from here on out is production. Those [newcomers] are going to be thrown into the mix right away. We're going to expect a lot out of them in terms of how they practice, how they prepare, how they learn. It happens fast. We'll see.
"It's way too early to be getting into speculating on who's doing what. We're excited about those new guys who are here and we're excited to get them rolling, and so hopefully they'll learn a little bit so they can play fast and compete."
The trio of larger freshman linebackers -- A.J. Johnson (6-foot-3, 245 pounds), Curt Maggitt (6-3, 215) and Christian Harris (6-2, 235) -- have taken some of the headlines, but the newcomers in the secondary have created what will likely be the most heated competition in camp.
The Vols are set at safety with Brent Brewer and Janzen Jackson, but the cornerback, nickel-back and dime-back spots are up for grabs among the newcomers and an entire returning cast from last season. That's a dramatic change for a UT secondary that struggled finding enough quality bodies to play extra defensive-back sets a year ago.
"It's like night and day, and obviously having those new guys in here who have shown to have some ability makes it a whole lot easier in here because you have more options," defensive backs coach Terry Joseph said. "But the biggest thing is that it brings competition, so a mistake can be corrected by a little bit less playing time, so now everybody knows that they are replaceable.
"Just having those guys here, it brings energy to the room and competition to the practices, and it just makes everything a little bit more exciting."
Considering the lack of experience and quality depth in the front seven, the Vols might need all they can get from their secondary. Defensive lineman Malik Jackson is the line's only proven returning player, and UT lost its best linebacker indefinitely when Herman Lathers fractured his ankle in June.
"There's a couple of guys that played a lot last year that were productive late in the season," Wilcox said. "Obviously Malik and Jacques Smith we feel like can do some things; the rest of the guys we just don't know right now."
Joseph said junior college transfers Byron Moore and Izauea Lanier have better size, strength and physical tools than some of UT's returning defensive backs, and he praised Moore's versatility and intelligence. Brewer, though, with the size and physicality of a linebacker, may allow Wilcox to play one more of those new defensive backs.
"As much as you want to stop the pass, you start putting all [defensive backs] on the field against some spread team and they'll run the ball a ton against you," Joseph said. "Brewer being a physical knocker is really going to help us. You can blitz, and he's not bad in coverage either, so he's a tremendous advantage for us. The more guys we've got who can play both [the run and the pass] equally well helps us out."
Said Wilcox: "There's going to be a lot that can change from now and the first game, and there can be a lot that changes throughout the season. It's really hard to tell to say we're going to be playing this much nickel, this much dime and this much base right now. I'd be guessing."