In fact, defensive line coach Ed Orgeron says tackle Wes Brown is one of the best competitors he's ever seen at any level of football. Brown, who is fighting through his senior season on two gimpy knees, is understandably flattered by such high praise coming from a football man of Orgeron's stature.
"It starts with him," Brown said, returning the compliment. "He instills that competitive nature in us."
Apparently so. The 2009 Vol defensive front projected to be a glaring weakness. Three of the top five linemen from '08 - first-round NFL draft pick Robert Ayers, plus tackles Demonte Bolden and Walter Fisher - were out of eligibility. When Brown's knees threatened to end his career in preseason camp, the D-line appeared to be a disaster area.
Instead, the D-line has been a pleasant surprise. The fact the front four has held up so well is probably as much a testament to the inspiration the Vols get from Brown as it is the coaching they get from Orgeron. Watching the 6-4, 275-pounder battle through pain on Saturdays clearly makes his fellow linemen dig a little deeper each week.
"I came to Tennessee because I'm passionate about this program and my teammates," he said. "It means a lot to me to be here. Every chance - practice field or in a game - I want to be the best I can be so when I look back on my time at Tennessee I'll have no regrets - saying, 'What if I'd done this? What if I'd done that?'"
Brown and his fellow defenders have played lights-out the past few weeks. Heading into Saturday night's 7:45 kickoff vs. South Carolina, the Vols have allowed no offensive touchdowns in the past eight quarters. That's pretty amazing for a defense that was projected in preseason to be merely average.
"As a defensive unit we take it as a challenge," Brown said. "Every week we hear how we're outmanned. All the talk is about our opponent and not us. All the talk (last week) was about Alabama's defense, not ours. We took that as an incentive to play well, have an identity and have people talking about us.
"I'm very pleased with the effort and the toughness our guys have. It's an amazing group to play with."
Even with the defense playing well, Tennessee lost three of its first five games this fall. That's because the offense wasn't carrying its share of the load. The attack unit has improved considerably in recent weeks, however, and that has helped the stop unit elevate its play even more.
"How the offense plays really dictates how we play," Brown said. "When we (UT offense) have three and outs there's a chance you get tired and you're going to give up more plays. But when the offense is moving the ball the way they have been and getting confidence, it trickles throughout the whole team."