David Climer, The Tennessean

I couldn't help but notice Tennessee has two Vols on the Bednarik Award Watch List for the nation's best defensive player.

Must be a misprint, right? Based on what we saw last season, UT didn't have anybody worthy of a mention. The Vols put up only token resistance in 2012. They couldn't get lined up properly, couldn't cover and couldn't tackle.

But the Bednarik list includes Vols linebacker A.J. Johnson and defensive tackle Daniel McCullers. Believe it or not, somebody actually thinks those two bear watching this season.

And you know what? They absolutely merit that kind of attention. Johnson was a very good player on a horrible defense last season. At 6-foot-8 and 351 pounds, McCullers can be a disrupter if he makes the adjustment from playing in a three-man front to a four-man front.

Granted, the Bednarik watch list goes 75 players deep. Names can be added or subtracted during the first few weeks of the season before semifinalists are selected on Oct. 29. Being listed is nice but it doesn't forecast stardom.

Just the same, UT is one of only four SEC teams with multiple entries on the watch list. Alabama and LSU have three players each while Florida matches the Vols at two.

Bottom line: UT is not as devoid of defensive talent as it seemed last season. The Vols were just poorly coached. New defensive coordinator John Jancek, who worked with Vols head coach Butch Jones the previous three years at Cincinnati, is now in charge and has a reputation for a fundamentally sound, aggressive system.

Jones steadfastly has declined to comment on how the team was coached by the previous regime. Asked recently about his expectations on defense, Jones noted there will be "some challenges as we adjust to a new scheme" and then said he was cautiously optimistic.

"We have some good football players on that side of the ball," he said. "What we need to do as coaches is get everybody on the same page."

The same page? There were times last year when the UT defense wasn't even reading from the same book. The Vols never seemed in sync. You couldn't tell if there was any talent on the field because they couldn't get lined up properly. Troy and Missouri gutted UT for a combined 1,175 yards and 98 points on consecutive Saturdays at Neyland Stadium.

Of all the mismanagement on Derek Dooley's coaching watch at UT, the hiring of Sal Sunseri as defensive coordinator might be the worst. Yes, Sunseri had done a great job of coaching linebackers at Alabama. But Pee-wee Herman could do a great job of coaching linebackers at Alabama.

Some have equated Dooley's hiring of Sunseri with Phillip Fulmer's ill-fated hire of Dave Clawson in 2008. That's not fair. While Clawson's offense (Remember the Clawfense?) produced the fewest yards of any UT team since 1977, he had a track record of success elsewhere. Not so with Sunseri. There was little reason to believe he could succeed as a defensive coordinator in the SEC.

During a 28-year career as an assistant coach, Sunseri had been a defensive coordinator in only three seasons - Illinois State in 1994 and Alabama A&M in 1998-99. That's not the kind of résumé you want when you're matching wits with Steve Spurrier. The results were predictable - and historically bad.

Sunseri is back in his element, coaching defensive ends at Florida State. Given the Seminoles' customary talent at the position, he'll do just fine.

As for UT's defense, the slate has been wiped clean. While overall talent does not match up to some of the SEC competition, the Vols shouldn't be utterly defenseless.

David Climer's columns appear on Wednesday, Friday, Sunday and Monday. Contact him at 615-259-8020 or

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