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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee defensive lineman Matthew Butler (94) and offensive lineman Riley Locklear (56) walk off the field after falling to the Florida Gators 47-21 at Neyland Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018 in Knoxville, Tenn.

KNOXVILLE — University of Tennessee defensive lineman Matthew Butler has never been one to choose his words lightly. An NCAA postgraduate scholarship winner after recording a 3.63 GPA in his political science major, he was also a four-time All-SEC Academic performer.

So what Butler had to say on Tuesday about last year's Vols as opposed to this year's model isn't long on emotion or short on reason. It comes from a calm and measured perspective.

But it also gives considerable insight into how a Big Orange defense that so often looked discombobulated and disinterested a season ago has become so impenetrable and spirited this time around under new head coach Josh Heupel and new defensive coordinator Tim Banks.

Asked during Tuesday's weekly media event to explain that vast improvement, Butler replied, "It comes down to how we're being coached, our philosophy on defense. I don't want to get into the nitty-gritty about it. I don't want to throw no staff under the bus. Other defenses use our old philosophy and play good. We didn't. Just being real. Go watch the film. We didn't play as good as we are right now. This fits us. It's working."

If you're former coach Jeremy Pruitt, a supposed defensive mastermind, one word comes to mind: Ouch!

After all, coaching, at least good coaching, is about adapting to your personnel. What works for this team we have this season. Not what may have worked with last year's roster. Not what might work somewhere down the road with a different roster. What works NOW.

It is a mantra often espoused by Heupel on the offensive side of the ball, which is his expertise. But it's also playing out on the defensive side under Banks and defensive line coach Rodney Garner, known throughout the sport as one of the best and most demanding in the business.

Or as Banks noted during the same media session: "We are trying to play to our players' strength, whatever that is. Obviously as we identify the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent, we try to put a defense or a plan together that gives us an advantage. But at the end of the day, to me, it's just based on that personnel and how we utilize them and give them the best chance to be successful."

The Vols were anything but successful a year ago. After winning their first two outings against a 10-game, SEC-only schedule, UT's lone victory the rest of the way came against woeful Vanderbilt, which wound up firing coach Derek Mason before the season ended.

When Pruitt was accused of numerous and serious NCAA violations under his watch, he was also shown the door, soon replaced by Heupel.

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee wide receiver Cedric Tillman (85) pulls in a 28-yard touchdown against UTC defensive back D.J. Jackson (21) during a NCAA football game at Neyland Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019 in Knoxville, Tenn.

But to view these Vols — now 3-2 on the season and 1-1 in the Southeastern Conference after last week's eye-popping 62-24 win at Missouri as they head into Saturday's visit from SEC East opponent South Carolina — is to realize that off-the-field wrongs weren't the previous coaching staff's only shortcomings.

Merely look at the numbers beyond the won-lost record on either side of the ball. On offense, the Vols are currently 21st in overall offense with 471 yards per game. A year ago they were 109th in scoring offense while averaging 346 yards per game.

As for Butler's side of the ball, the current Vols rank 24th in rushing defense. Last year's Vols ranked 70th in total defense. But take away the Florida game and the 283 rushing yards UT surrendered to the Gators and its 59 average rushing yards allowed through its other four games would rank fourth nationally.

And all of this good work is being accomplished with a team supposedly far less talented than Pruitt's final squad.

Nor was Butler the only Vol interviewed on Tuesday to share the differences in the old staff's coaching style and that of the new staff.

"The approach of the offense is the next-play mentality, which is something I think we struggled with last year," said wide receiver Cedric Tillman. "We probably had one good play and kind of got stuck on it. Coach (Heupel) tells us no matter what happens, even if we make a good play, get up and get the ball to the ref and keep going. Everything is going so fast we don't have time to kind of just focus on the previous play."

One 62-24 rout of Missouri does not a season make. Games against No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Georgia, No. 16 Kentucky and No. 17 Ole Miss still remain. A bowl bid may now seem all but certain, but there is still much work to do to finish better than 6-6.

So should the Big Orange Nation feel good at the moment? Absolutely. Given the fine work done by Heupel and his staff to date, it should feel even better about the future.

But what it should feel best about is that the players believe in this coaching staff and its philosophy, something that was clearly absent a year ago in Pruitt's final season.

Said Tillman as he uttered words that haven't been heard with any degree of certainty from Vols players in more than a decade: "Whether things are going good or bad, I feel like we all just believe in each other, and I think if we continue to believe in each other, it's only going to get better."

Believe the words of Butler and Tillman and it's hard to believe it could ever get much worse than last season.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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