By Wes Rucker
KNOXVILLE - Jim Chaney sat in a film room early this week, and he didn't like what he saw.
Chaney saw for the first time what Southeastern Conference offensive coordinators have seen for nearly two decades.
He saw a John Chavis defense.
"This is a heck of a good defense we're getting ready to play," Chaney said Thursday night. "They're as talented as anybody in the country. They look pretty. They run fast. They knock the heck out of you. They're very, very good. They're a very physical defense. They run around and hit people, and they enjoy doing it.
"Some defenses do it occasionally. This defense is doing it on every play. I think John has them playing at a high [level] right now. They are running around hitting people, and they look good to me."
That Chavis defense will take the Tiger Stadium field Saturday afternoon. And it will oppose Tennessee for the first time since the defensive mastermind, along with boss Phillip Fulmer, left the Volunteers after the 2008 season.
"Their speed, defensively, is unbelievable," Vols quarterback Simms said. "There's a lot of great, talented football players on that defense. Everyone knows what they bring to the table defensively.
"We know we need to play smart and not hurt ourselves with penalties."
First-year UT head coach Derek Dooley is no stranger to Chavis's 4-3-base, blitz-happy scheme. Dooley was an LSU assistant when the Tigers took two of three games against the Vols in 2000 and 2001. The tiebreaker was one of the most crushing losses in UT history, a 31-20 Tigers triumph in the SEC championship game that kept the second-ranked Vols out of the national championship game.
As head coach at Louisiana Tech, Dooley took his Bulldogs to Baton Rouge last season and lost 24-16.
"I've seen [a Chavis defense] for eight out of my last 10 years of coaching, and it's always good," Dooley said. "It's always schematically sound. They always have great players. They always believe in the system, and they're where they're supposed to be. They're very tough to move the ball on.
"He's doing what he always does. That's what I see. He mixes it up great, so you never get a good tendency on them. He utilizes players to their abilities. He does a good job.
"That's why he's been coordinating in the SEC for so long, because he's good."
Eleven of Chavis's 14 UT units finished as one of the SEC's top three total defenses.
"I enjoyed my time there," Chavis, a walk-on turned scholarship middle guard as a UT player, told reporters in Baton Rouge this week. "It was fun, probably one of the better eras in Tennessee football history. But that's gone. I'm fortunate to be in a great program where we've got a chance to win and coach great athletes. I'm excited about that.
"I'm purple and gold through and through. If I finish my career here at LSU, I'll be a happy man. It's a great place. I love the Tigers. The people have been wonderful to me.
"And the players, that's who I'm the most attached to - the ones playing in the purple and gold."
While head coach Les Miles' job security never seems certain in an area where he's never been fully embraced - not even after a national championship - it's difficult to see Chavis sitting on a hot seat for the foreseeable future.
In its second year under Chavis, LSU's defense has forced 11 turnovers in just four games. It has allowed just three touchdowns in the past three games.
The Tigers lead the SEC in total defense, allowing only 254 yards per game. They also lead the league in rushing defense, surrendering just 74.8 yards per game. Their 12 points-per-game scoring defense is second only to Alabama, which allows under 10 points per game.
LSU also leads the league by allowing just 14.8 first downs per game, and it's second in third-down-conversion defense at 27.6 percent. It's also third in the league with six interceptions and fourth with 11 sacks.
And the Tigers had to replace seven defensive starters from last season.
When Chavis stated his desire to retire at LSU, few who know him doubted his sincerity. His loyalty was well known to those who worked with or covered the man in Knoxville. He turned down handfuls of various college and NFL job opportunities during a 20-year coaching stint in Knoxville because he couldn't leave the alma mater he loved and Fulmer, his trusted friend.
Chavis broke down and cried a few times late in the 2008 season, when he essentially knew he'd finally have to coach somewhere else. Fulmer asked UT brass to consider Chavis for the head coaching job, but even Chavis knew that wasn't a realistic possibility.
"Chief," as his players have always called him, was particularly emotional following UT's 20-10 win at Vanderbilt that November. Then he coached one last game - a home win over Kentucky - before unpacking his office and looking for greener pastures.
He found them in the Louisiana swamp.
"You adjust and move on," Chavis told local media this week. "That's what you have to do in life. Things don't always happen the way you'd like them to happen. You look at the hand you're dealt, and you better play it to the best of your ability.
"I am blessed to be here at LSU, and thankful. It's a great opportunity for me."
Contact Wes Rucker at email@example.com or 865-851-9739. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wesrucker or Facebook at www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.