John Chavis stood in a corner of the LSU locker room Saturday, glad to talk about his defense’s play in the Tigers’ 41-11 victory over Florida.
When the subject turned to Chavis’ history with LSU’s opponent this Saturday, the Tennessee Volunteers, the man they call “Chief” tightened up like Morris Claiborne’s man-to-man coverage.
“I’m excited about being an LSU Tiger,” Chavis said. “This thing next week will be about LSU and Tennessee. It’s going to happen on the field, and that’s what it’s going to be. I’m just fortunate enough that I have a position at LSU and I’m going to be a part of the game, and I’m excited about that.”
Former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer hasn’t spoken this week to Chavis, his former assistant and one of his closest friends, but said he wasn’t surprised to hear he wants to keep the spotlight off himself.
“John is always one to deflect praise to his players or fellow coaches,” said Fulmer, Tennessee’s coach from 1992-2008. “He’s very much a business-like person, which is what I have always admired.”
Chavis was an admired fixture at Tennessee for decades.
A native of Dillon, S.C., he arrived in Knoxville as a walk-on defensive lineman in the mid-1970s and lettered in 1977 and ’78 at nose tackle.
In 1979, he began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Tennessee. After stints at Alabama A&M and Alabama State, he returned to Tennessee in 1989 under Johnny Majors and by 1995 was named defensive coordinator by Fulmer, a position he held through the 2008 season.
“I remember playing against his defenses at LSU,” said LSU coach Les Miles, who faced Chavis and Tennessee in 2005, 2006 and 2007. “You felt his presence across the field.”
LSU’s first trip to Tennessee in five years is Chavis’ first trip there as a member of the opposing team, as they head to Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday (2:30 p.m. CDT, CBS). It’s a visit that finds the Tigers (6-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) at the top of their game, holding the nation’s No. 1 ranking.
The same could be said for Chavis and his defense, the bedrock of the Tigers’ perfect start.
Despite losing arguably his best defensive back (Patrick Peterson), his best linebacker (Kelvin Sheppard) and best defensive tackle (Drake Nevis) to the NFL, Chavis’ troops have continued to improve in their third season under his tutelage.
The Tigers rank in the top 10 nationally in four major defensive categories: fourth in rushing defense (69.2 yards per game), fifth in total defense (254.0 ypg), sixth in pass efficiency defense (98.44 opponent’s rating) and eighth in scoring defense (12.5 ppg).
LSU is also fourth in turnover margin at plus-1.83 per game, in large part because of the 14 turnovers the Tigers defense has forced. In all those statistical areas, LSU has so far improved over 2010 in this Chavis’ third season with the program.
“I think from a scheme standpoint, he’s probably the best in the country,” defensive end Barkevious Mingo said. “He knows how to get the best out of his players. He motivates us every week to do our best and to play for our team, each other and our families.”
Watching LSU’s defense from afar this season, Fulmer said he sees strong similarities to the Tennessee defenses of the late 1990s and early 2000s, defenses patrolled by All-Americans like linebacker Al Wilson, defensive tackle Cosey Coleman, linebacker Raynoch Thompson of New Orleans and defensive tackle John Henderson.
“John’s a great teacher and it does take a little time,” Fulmer said. “It’s a system and he has an expectation, and he’s not going to back off. The players have to buy into how they want to play the game on that side of the ball very quickly.”
Despite the key personnel losses from last season, Fulmer said he’s observed that Chavis again has the kinds of players he needs to implement his defensive scheme best.
“If he can match you up at cornerback, he will create a lot of (quarterback) protection and running game problems,” said Fulmer, now a partner in a Knoxville investment firm. “He has the secondary people to do that and he’s very deep up front.”
Despite Chavis’ desire to keep Saturday’s game a business trip, Miles said he knows it will be personal for Chief as well.
“He also has great respect for his time at Tennessee,” Miles said. “It’s going to be an emotional game for him. He’ll want that defense to play well.”
A defense that can say what Chavis would rather not.