KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Former Tennessee championship linebacker Raynoch Thompson said a more physical version of the Vols will lead to more wins this season.
“You win football games in the trenches, and the type of team you have is ultimately determined by the physical aspects of your team,” Thompson told SEC Country. “Football is inherently a violent game.”
Thompson was among the best at Tennessee, a two-time All-American who was flanked by Al Wilson and Eric Westmoreland in a linebacking corps that helped hold opponents to 86.7 yards rushing per game in the Vols’ 13-0 1998 national championship season.
Thompson, a second-round NFL draft pick in 2000 who played 64 games over five seasons in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals, said in addition to physicality, Tennessee’s speed in the linebacking corps was a factor.
“Coach (Phillip) Fulmer recruited safeties and played them at linebacker, and then linebackers to play at defensive end,” Thompson said. “Me, Al and Eric, we were all safeties in high school. The thought was to get more speed out there because we were playing Florida and they were spreading the field.”
The multiple-receiver sets have become the rule, not the exception, so speed is once against a factor in the linebacking corps.
Tennessee’s opening game against Georgia Tech on Sept. 4 in Atlanta, however, offers a unique challenge.
“It takes time to get your assignments down when you play an option team,” Thompson said, “and then it’s a totally different beast when you see it in the game, because you can’t replicate the speed the option teams will run at.”
Thompson said option teams have several different varieties within their offensive package, so it’s not as simple as putting together one defensive scheme to stop it.
“If it’s the veer option you could be reading a triangle, or you cold be reading a man, you have to read the down blocking scheme and then fit tight on the defensive end,” Thompson said. “Some teams like to string (the option) along, some teams attack the ball carrier or the quarterback.
“Most of the time we liked to attack the ball and get it out of the quarterback’s hands and make them designate a runner immediately,” Thompson said. “Coach (John) Chavis always had the right scheme, and it was up to execute it.”
Thompson said he believes Tennessee’s defense will improve this season, in part because of the work the players are doing in the offseason.
“That 7-on-7 they are doing will enhance their skills and pay large dividends,” Thompson said. “To some degree it helps the team chemistry, but it also helps you get a feel for you teammates, and you can’t get that feel without going through those type of workouts together.
“The dynamic is that you’re doing it over and over in the workouts, and it all carries over into the season.”