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University of Tennessee NCAA college assistant football coach John Palermo talks to reporters at the indoor practice facilty on the school campus in Knoxville, Tenn., Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012. (AP Photo/The Knoxville News Sentinel, Michael Patrick)

KNOXVILLE -- His shirt was drenched in sweat.

The worn orange baseball cap resting gently on his head was in a similar state.

There was a touch of exhaustion in his voice.

John Palermo spent the morning his 60th birthday on the practice field for his first spring practice as Tennessee's defensive line coach. Nearly two weeks later, the Volunteers' most senior assistant readily admitted he's just trying to catch his breath.

"I'd say I'm definitely old school," he said last week. "They're killing me right now. Look at me. They're wearing me out.

"You know what, I don't know that it's more than I expected, but I've got to tell you this: the tempo here, in my 38 years of coaching, is about twice as fast as it's been at any place I've ever coached."

Given where Palermo's coached in his nearly 40-year career, that's a telling statement. After one season as Austin Peay's head coach, the veteran coached Wisconsin's defensive lineman for 15 seasons (1991-2005). Following single-season stints at Tennessee Tech and Miami (FL), Palermo went to the NFL for two seasons with the Washington Redskins, then spent the last two seasons at Middle Tennessee State.

And that's just the second half of his resume, one that made him an attractive option for Sal Sunseri.

"He's been to places," UT's new defensive coordinator said. "He's been to Wisconsin, where they went to the Rose Bowl I don't how many times, but a lot of times. He was with Lou Holtz, who's won a national championship [at Notre Dame].

"I'm a believer in old school. You've got to come out here and you've got to demand that they do it right. John, I know because of our experiences working together in the National Football League, he knows how to get the kids to do it right, he knows how to teach them to be successful and he knows more importantly that if they listen to him, they're going to have a chance."

Palermo admits he's demanding as a coach, but he's not that way all the time.

"Once I get them to understand what they're supposed to do," he explained, "then I become real hard on them. Until that point, until they understand what they have to do, then I don't feel like I'm that hard on them. You're still in the teaching process.

"I think it's too early overall to give you a general statement. I would tell you this: some guys have responded well, and some guys have gone into the jar a little bit and have to be able to overcome that. If they overcome me in practice, they ought to be able to overcome anything in the game."

Though he's jumping from the Sun Belt Conference to the SEC, Palermo is no stranger to big-time football. Since beginning his coaching career as a graduate assistant at North Carolina State in 1977, he's coached at two Big Ten programs and won a national title with the Fighting Irish in 1988. Regardless of location, Palermo believes the basics of teaching fundamentals and physicality are the same.

It's what he's brought to UT, even though it's taking its toll on him. Defensive end Marlon Walls actually took some of the blame for it after the Vols' scrimmage on Friday. Of course, the rising junior couldn't contain a wide smile at his coach's perspiring predicament.

"I guess the mistakes, man," Walls said. "He's old school, and he's got a little age on him. Don't tell him I said that. I think we're making him a little bit older faster than he wants to get.

"That's on us. A guy like me that calls himself a leader on the D-line, we've got to do better. I take full responsibility for making him older."

The Vols are still figuring out what they have on the defensive line as they mix and match who can play where in the trenches. When fall arrives, UT likely will need two junior college transfers in Darrington Sentimore, who's already on campus, and Daniel McCullers, who gets to campus in the summer, to contribute quickly. For now, though, Palermo, much like his players, is just trying to stay afloat amid the fast pace and heavy installation of a new scheme.

"Sal is used to throwing all this stuff at them," he said. "I've not done it that way before. There's a method to the madness. There's a rhyme and a reason to why we're doing it.

"It's been different for me. It's been fast-paced for me as well."