The SEC. A conference that boasts seven of the last eight national champions in college football.

But in the time that championships have become synonymous with the conference, so has the attribute the teams in the SEC pride themselves on – speed.

In 2013, however, it was apparent that team speed wasn't the Vols' strong suit, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

Tennessee coach Butch Jones knew it, too, making it the focal point in recruiting as well as the Vols preparation during spring training.

"(It's a) work in progress," Jones said following Tuesday's practice. "We have to get much faster as a defense and as a football program. We are not up to SEC speed. So it starts with recruiting, it starts with being bigger, stronger, faster. You have to play chess, you can't play checkers.

"It is getting your players in the right spots, and if they have value in one regard or another, it is trying to extract as much value as you can in your football program."

And a game of chess is exactly what it's been for the Vols.

Many familiar faces have found themselves in new roles, including Curt Maggitt, DeVaun Swafford, Justin Coleman, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and true freshman Neiko Creamer, who played wide receiver in high school but has since converted to linebacker this spring.

But even if there are some positions that can't be filled in the spring, Jones sees an opportunity to improve that speed with the members of the 2014 recruiting class who have yet to enroll.

"We're trying to improve our team speed as much as possible," Jones said. "The great thing is that we will welcome 18 newcomers in June, so it will almost be like starting the process all over again.

"A lot of them are going to have to play as true freshmen," he added. "They have no choice, that's just where we're at."

Widening the depth perception

Throughout six practices, one position that's consistently show its talent is the wide receiver.

The talent, however, is more impressive when you look at the depth of the position, as Tennessee returns seven receivers who caught passes in 2013, highlighted by sophomore Marquez North who last year led UT with 496 receiving yards.

Add the two early enrollees who joined the team this spring and the Vols have 10 active wideouts on the roster, which redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jason Croom said has made each receiver better.

"It gives you no reason to not go 100 percent," Croom said, "because as soon as you get tired, we have somebody else that's just as equal to come in there and replace you, go fast, and then put you back in there when they're tired."

One of those receivers who is slowly climbing up the ladder is Tennessee's five-star wideout from Campbell Station, Tenn., Josh Malone.

"One individual that I thought really looked fast today and is starting to play with a lot of confidence right now is Josh Malone," Jones said. "He's coming off the football and you can see the speed, burst and acceleration that we saw on film when we were recruiting him. We're starting to see that now on the practice field."

And the improvement of those playmakers outside the hashes has started to turn the heads of the coaching staff as spring practice progresses.

"I think the receiving corp in general has really stepped up," offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said after practice on March 13. "Marquez North has done a really good job of going up and out-jumping people's backs and making catches. Von (Pearson) has also done a good job of getting the ball in his hands.

"The group as a whole is really coming along."