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As Leaders Emerge on Defense, Vols Still Taking it Day by Day

Photo via Nathanael Rutherford/RTI

It’s important for a first-year coach and coordinator to quickly establish who the alphas on the roster are. Once that’s figured out, the coaches can lean on those players to lead in workouts, practices, and in the community.

With the correct leaders in place, it encourages others to step up. For a team that is viewed as rebuilding, Tennessee co-defensive coordinator Chris Rumph has been gratified with the emergence of leaders throughout the spring and summer.

“So far it seems like Darrell Taylor has been really, really vocal,” Rumph said to the media when asked who the alphas have been so far this year. “(Daniel) Bituli, Nigel Warrior, and Kyle Phillips. And as soft-spoken as he is, (Phillips) has been a guy that’s really stepping up. We’re happy to see those guys step up, and we need more leaders and more guys to step up.

“But also, you can’t have all leaders, all Chiefs and no Indians. We need to take sure that the Indians realize the Chiefs are running, and if we get that in line, I think we’ll be fine.”

While Rumph has been pleased to see alphas emerge, he’s also been satisfied with how the other players have been responding to those leaders.

“You don’t hear a lot of fussing. You hear guys say, ‘Hey man, stand up, do this,’ and you see guys respond,” Rumph stated. “You don’t hear a lot of back talk.”

Bituli is coming off a breakout sophomore season in which he led Tennessee with 90 tackles and finished ninth in the SEC in tackles per game at 7.5.  Not only did Bituli emerge as a reliable defender for the Vols, he was also one of the few leaders on last year’s team. For the junior from Antioch, Tennessee, stepping up as a leader came naturally. Now it’s rubbing off on the entire defense.

“A lot of guys on this team take a lot of pride in Tennessee,” Bituli said during Tennessee’s media day on Sunday. “We’re just holding each other accountable. If I’m ever down there not doing what I’m supposed to be doing, they’ll do the same to me. That’s what we expect from each other.”

Quart’e Sapp wasn’t a name that Rumph listed off on defense, but Sapp has become a loud voice on the defensive side of the ball. Following a 2017 season in which Sapp was one of the few bright spots, many within the program have indicated the redshirt-junior has had a strong offseason. When asked about emerging as a leader, Sapp didn’t credit any one person.

“I wouldn’t say that anyone separated themselves from the group,” Sapp said on Sunday. “All of the upperclassmen and even the whole team, we pride ourselves in all of us being leaders and basically coaching ourselves and policing ourselves. Everyone as a whole team has really done a great job policing each other.”

Though Tennessee is switching to a new defense this season, Sapp and the rest of the defensive roster are more comfortable this fall than they were in the spring. With a level of familiarity, the Vols continue to be focused on taking things one day at a time, one game at a time.

“We’ve prepared and changed the defense and are putting finishing touches rather than it being all new,” Sapp said. “We know what’s about to happen. There’s definitely more confidence because we know what we’re doing. There’s more stuff that we’re putting in, more detail, more tedious things that we’re focusing on instead of just the overall picture of the defense.

“I’m just focused on one game at a time, and I’m pretty sure my teammates are as well. Just one game at a time. We’re preparing for West Virginia. That’s all we’re thinking about right now.”

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