This season brings optimism for the resurgence of Tennessee’s offense with the hiring of Josh Heupel, but worry still remains on the defensive side of the ball.
With Heupel at the helm, Tennessee will find ways to light up the scoreboard, but will it find a way to stop the opposing team from setting off their own fireworks?
Under defensive-gurus Jeremy Pruitt and Derek Ansley, Tennessee ranked 65th out of 127 teams nationally, in total defense. However, under Heupel, UCF ranked 123rd out of 127 teams nationally, in total defense.
Even with a middle of the pack defense, the Vols still had talent on that side of the ball. Most of that talent is now currently on other rosters in college football or in the NFL.
In 2021, Tennessee has to replace leading tackler Henry To'oTo'o, its top two sack leaders Kivon Bennet and Deandre Johnson and cornerback Bryce Thompson. Depth is a major question mark heading into the season, as the Vols lost pieces within the front seven in defensive linemen Emmit Gooden, Darel Middleton, John Mincey and linebacker Quavarius Crouch, as well as promising defensive back Key Lawrence.
Heupel has always been an offensive mastermind, however his defensive ability has been lackluster. To help fix that narrative, Heupel hired Tim Banks, who served as the co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach for Penn State for the last five seasons.
Under Banks, Penn State ranked nationally in multiple defensive categories including 17th in total defense, 25th in pass defense and 13th in rush defense.
Banks will have his hands full this upcoming season trying to recreate the success he had with Penn State.
Beginning with the pass rush, which ranked eighth best in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) last season, UT’s defensive line only tallied 20 total sacks. Tennessee lost half of its production from last season with Bennett and Johnson, as they each racked up four and a half sacks.
Tyler Barron looks prime to make a jump in year two after only sacking the quarterback once in 2020. Newcomer Byron Young has potential to be a breakout player across the defensive line after standing out in spring practice. Aubrey Solomon, LaTrell Bumphus and Matthew Butler look to contribute more up front, as they each combined for only three sacks in 2020.
Continuing with the front seven, the linebackers have the most question marks heading into the season.
The losses of To’o To’o and Crouch in an already diminished linebacker room do not help. Both were top three in tackles along the defense in 2020.
The addition of transfer Juwan Mitchell from Texas will help fill the void left by To’oTo’o and Crouch. Mitchell led the Longhorns with 63 tackles in 2020.
There are still far more questions than answers with the linebackers. Can Jeremy Banks continue to progress as a linebacker after changing positions from running back to linebacker last season? Where do players like Morven Joseph and Aaron Willis fit in the defense?
Heading into the season, linebackers have the most questions to answer before facing Bowling Green.
The most experienced group on this defense is the defensive backs. They are poised to have the most success and be the most reliable on this side of the ball.
Last season, the Vols were rated 106th nationally in pass defense, allowing 263 yards per game, and they look to improve upon that rating this season.
Losing Thompson — who led the team in interceptions — to the NFL will be hurtful to the secondary, but there is plenty of experience to fill the void he left.
The corners are led by senior Alontae Taylor, and at safety, they feature a trio of players with at least a dozen starts in Theo Jackson, Trevon Flowers and Jaylen McCollough.
Willie Martinez returns for a second stint with the Vols as the secondary coach.
Depth is a common theme with this defense, because after the four mentioned, there are only three remaining scholarship players across the secondary.
This secondary has the potential to improve upon its efforts from last season and become the leaders of this defense.
Heupel can bring the excitement the fans have been craving on offense, but can he carry that success over to the defense?
The first test for the defense will be this Thursday, as they open the season against Bowling Green under the lights of Neyland Stadium.