KNOXVILLE - Danny O'Brien learned plenty during his first season of playing in the Southeastern Conference in 2013.
The Tennessee defensive tackle probably took more from his offseason arrest.
One of the few returning players with experience at a premium position in the nation's toughest conference, O'Brien is an important player for the Volunteers this spring, and the third-year sophomore said following Tuesday's practice that he learned an important lesson following his arrest at a party last month.
"Honestly, I've looked at it as a whole entire learning experience," O'Brien said in his first interview since the incident. "I'm glad it happened. It taught me a life lesson that I'll know forever. A lot of the stuff that went on in the media and stuff like that, I tried to block that out. Now we can just focus on playing football and getting past all that."
The 6-foot-2, 287-pounder from Michigan was arrested, along with All-SEC linebacker A.J. Johnson and former Vols linebacker Dontavis Sapp, and charged with criminal impersonation with a fake identification, resisting arrest and underage consumption.
Those charges will be dropped in six months if O'Brien completes 40 hours of community service, pays court fees, stays out of trouble and submits to alcohol assessment, and Tennessee coach Butch Jones said a couple of weeks ago he was handling any punishment from the program internally.
The former four-star recruit was open about the experience as he spoke about it Tuesday.
"Probably just to cut the distractions out. That's the biggest thing," he said. "Partying and all that kind of stuff, that's just a distraction to our football team, to the Tennessee fans and the media and stuff like that. It's just a big distraction to the whole team, and it takes away from what we're trying to do, and that's win a national championship."
After redshirting in 2011, O'Brien was part of the rotation at tackle last season, though he played a reserve role behind senior starters Daniel McCullers and Daniel Hood. He played in every game and made 12 tackles. His lone sack came in the upset of South Carolina, and he also had a tackle for loss against Vanderbilt.
"I think I got the jitters out and showed myself, and in my head, it gave me confidence that I can go out there and make plays," O'Brien said. "It just kept driving me for this season to go out and make even more plays, but the biggest thing is getting those first snaps in Neyland Stadium and those away stadiums, those crazy SEC stadiums.
"I just got the jitters out, and it helped me move on."
With Hood, McCullers and Mo Couch, another senior who was suspended for the season in September, all gone, the Vols have quite a bit of production and experience to replace at tackle. O'Brien and junior college transfer Owen Williams, one of the team's strongest players, have gotten first-team work early this spring.
Trevarris Saulsberry figures to be in the mix if he can rediscover the form that got him into the rotation early last season, but the fourth-year junior is out this spring after offseason knee and shoulder surgeries. It's also a big spring for Jason Carr, a sophomore and former four-star recruit from Memphis.
Last season, O'Brien was needed more to provide depth, but Tennessee is starting from scratch essentially in terms of identifying its playmakers, tackles who can disrupt running plays and push the pocket and pass rushers off the edge at end, up front.
"Dan has worked exceptionally hard, and he's one of those individuals that has game repetitions," Jones said. "We're going to expect more out of him, but with him, it's again our overall style of play. It's just him understanding that snap in and snap out, every single snap. I think with him it's that consistency, it's that relentless approach that we have to take on every snap.
"He has had a very good offseason, but the encouraging thing is there's a lot of room for growth and improvement, and he's one of those individuals."
O'Brien and Williams are shorter defensive tackles than Hood and McCullers but have strong lower bodies. After playing at the nose tackle spot last season, O'Brien is working at the three-technique, the other tackle spot. It's an adjustment on which he's focusing this spring.
"With the three-technique comes a lot of double teams," he said. "Coach Strip [line coach Steve Stripling], he teaches us the technique to play those double teams. That's really my focus this spring, is to be able to play those and get off those blocks, especially being in the SEC with a lot of power and power runs. You've got to be able to play that double team perfect."
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