KNOXVILLE -- At the very least, Tennessee's defensive players filled half of their coordinator's request for Friday's scrimmage.
The Volunteers took all the new defensive schemes they've been learning to Neyland Stadium just two days after Sal Sunseri, the new coordinator, expressed his desire for his group to line up correctly and play tough, physical football. While some players saw plenty of room for improvement after the 134-play workout, head coach Derek Dooley was positive about the day's work from his transitioning defense.
"I was pleased," Dooley said. "There weren't a lot of mental breakdowns, which allowed them to play fast. We have got to do a better job of stopping the run, but we're playing a lot more aggressively, playing more physical and denying the ball in the back end a little bit better.
"As long as you're playing with that kind of aggressiveness and toughness, all the other stuff will come."
Sunseri and the Vols have seven more practices before the Orange and White Game concludes spring practice two weeks from today. Linebacker Herman Lathers said UT spent Wednesday's practice preparing for Saturday. That included removing the coaches from the field and shortening the playbook for the defense's first live test.
"Just as a group, we've got to get better and more disciplined in just learning our jobs and what to do," he said. "Do our jobs and the defensive will work together as a whole."
Playing hard and fast can make up for some incorrect alignments or missed assignments. The Vols have done so much installation this spring that some players have noted how much they have to learn. The multiplicity of Sunseri's defense is complex, but the intangibles are simple.
"I think our intensity got a little bit better as far as running to the ball and guys' hair being on fire when the play's going on," defensive end Marlon Walls said. "But we've got a long way to go. I love the challenge. We're far off to what we're supposed to be.
"Everything the offense did big-play-wise, we gave it to them. That's unacceptable, and as a defense we've got to know what to do, when we've got to do it and why we're doing it. We'll get better at it."
No holding back
Lathers' health is one of the biggest question marks of spring. The rising fifth-year senior hasn't played since the 2010 season after fracturing his ankle last June, and whether he can return to the form he showed when he was UT's second-leading tackler is uncertain. He made four tackles and broke up a pass Friday.
"It went pretty well [but] not as well as I expected," he said. "I was able to finish the practice and get some pressure on the quarterback, so that was a good thing."
Dooley said the Vols didn't hold Lathers back at all. The coach also expressed how much Lathers is needed at middle linebacker, where the Vols are short on quality depth.
"He's active, he's physical and he's got some leadership qualities," he said. "It's important that you're deep and talented so when you get a guy hurt it doesn't affect you. But we need Herman to stay healthy because he's a good presence for us over there.
"We let him go. He's going to have to go because I think a lot of his concerns are mental. He's got to get out there, take the licks and recover from it and see that his body can do it."
Daniel Hood (shoulder) and Maurice Couch (concussion) are out and the mammoth Daniel McCullers won't arrive on campus until June, so the Vols are short on players at nose tackle.
Enter freshman Trent Taylor. The 6-foot-3, 280-pound midterm enrollee seems to have made a move at the position, which is a crucial one in Sunseri's defense. Taylor had one tackle for loss Friday.
"Trent's got some good skill sets," Dooley said. "I think Trent's going to be a really good player. We're not sure where, but he's got the body type and the ability to play pretty much everything across the defensive line. That's where we've been focusing him on lately."
Safety Brian Randolph made two of the defense's biggest plays Friday. The rising sophomore safety picked off a Tyler Bray pass and blocked a Michael Palardy field goal. The 6-foot, 189-pounder chipped in three tackles for good measure.
"He's ... still in his freshman year, and he looks like a junior out there from a maturity standpoint," Dooley said. "He's kind of been a steady hand in the secondary."
Cornerback Prentiss Waggner (shoulder), linebacker Curt Maggitt (shoulder), linebacker/safety Brent Brewer (knee) and safety Geraldo Orta (undisclosed) all did not scrimmage. ... Dooley likes what Antonio Richardson and Dallas Thomas give the left side of UT's offensive line. "I think we made a good move there, he said. "I think it's going to pay off." ... Dooley said redshirt freshman Mack Crowder is "pushing" rising junior Alex Bullard at center. ... Linebackers Greg King and A.J. Johnson led the defense with eight and seven tackles. ... Cornerback Marsalis Teague made six stops and broke up a pass, and cornerback Eric Gordon recovered a fumble forced by linebacker Raiques Crump and added a sack. ... Linebacker Jacques Smith and safety Rod Wilks each broke up two passes. ... Defensive end Steven Fowlkes had two sacks. ... Dooley said quarterback Justin Worley has "had a really good spring." The rising sophomore was 11-of-20 passing for 110 yards.