Tennessee's football players didn't learn much about defense last fall but they learned a lot about humility. Allowing 35 points per game will do that.
Being shredded game after game was a nightmare, so Vol defenders are working extra hard this offseason to make sure the 2012 debacle isn't repeated in 2013.
"It was terrible, man," defensive end Corey Miller said recently. "That's completely on us as a defense. We take full responsibility for it. We're just going to take it on the head and try to get better this year."
Defensive lineman Trevarris Saulsberry agrees that the Vols are turning humiliation into motivation.
"Last year it hurt bad," he said. "Just knowing you had teams coming in here throwing for 500 yards, running for 400 yards ... it hurt. This year our mindset is that you're going to fight for every yard, step by step."
Defensive tackle Mo Couch agrees that the painful memories of last season provide extra incentive this offseason.
"Last year we wasn't good at all," he said, "so that's something we have in the back of our heads to make us a better defense."
Tennessee's defenders made noticeable strides in spring practice, capped by allowing just one offensive touchdown in the Orange & White Game. Although the Vol offense is too limited to provide a true measuring stick, the defense appears to be well ahead of this time last year.
"I think we've got a good handle on everything going into the summer," senior safety Byron Moore said. "Now it's just on us leaders to make sure we keep everybody together during the summer while the coaches are away."
Tennessee's ill-fated 2012 defense was overseen by Sal Sunseri. He had never coordinated a defense at the major-college level, and it showed. His scheme was so complex that several Vols never grasped it. Alignment and assignment errors were commonplace. Pursuit angles were indescribably bad and the tackling was awful.
Conversely, the 2013 defensive staff boasts three coaches with coordinator experience. Current Vol DC John Jancek previously filled the same role at Wayne State (1992-94), Hillsdale (1996-98), Grand Valley State (1999-2002), Central Michigan (2004), Georgia (2009) and Cincinnati (2010-12). Current Vol secondary coach Willie Martinez coordinated defenses at Grand Valley State (1992-93), Central Florida (1995-96), Central Michigan (2000) and Georgia (2005-09). Current Vol defensive line coach Steve Stripling's resume includes a season as Indiana's defensive coordinator (1996). The only Vol defensive staffer who hasn't coordinated a defense is linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen.
Bottom line: Tennessee's 2013 defensive staff has three guys more qualified to be a DC than Sunseri was. Maybe that's why Vol defenders have bought in this year, something they never truly did last year.
"Each person has their role. There's no gray area," Moore said. "Everything's black and white. Each person knows what route they have to take in each coverage. It simplifies things for us on the back end (secondary) and the front seven. We all know what we've got on each call. We can change one thing with a different call but all of the rules (for the scheme) will stay the same."
Because the new scheme is easier to grasp, Vol defenders can play more aggressively and less tentatively.
"It definitely helps out a lot when you're not thinking as much," Moore said. "Each rule just carries over to the next call. It might be two people doing something different but it's still the same call. That helps a lot, as far as learning the package fast."
Couch also appreciates the more basic approach, noting: "We're not installing something every day. A lot of guys are learning the defense and comprehending everything. It's just a better overall defensive mentality."
Senior linebacker Brent Brewer feels so much more confident in the new scheme that he assigned a numerical grade to it.
"I feel about 80 percent better," he said. "Everybody comes in after school and works to learn the plays. It's a lot simpler than last year, so there's not a lot of confusion."
Several players also appreciate the new defensive staff's motivational style. The 2013 aides are pushing hard without resorting to the profanity-laced tirades that punctuated Sunseri's stint.
"They're not going to let you take no days off," Moore said. "They don't care if you're scholarship or walk-on; they're going to coach you just as hard. They're going to demand high energy, tempo."
In addition to a high level of energy, Vol defenders have a high level of confidence. That's difficult to imagine, given how badly they played last fall. This is a new year, however, with a new scheme, new coaches, a new level of enthusiasm and a new sense of camaraderie.
"You're going to see a defense that plays with more effort than anybody else in the country," Moore said. "You'll see better tackling, more swarming around, higher energy on the sideline and on the field, guys chest-bumping and celebrating with each other. It's just one big brotherhood."