Tennessee head football coach Josh Heupel introduced his inaugural defensive staff to the local media today as all five of the Vols’ defensive coaches met with the media.
“The group of guys collectively have experience, have a wealth of knowledge, invest in their players and are going to be great recruiters for us,” Heupel said. “(I’m) excited about having these guys on the defensive side of the football.”
Let’s take a look at each of Tennessee’s defensive assistants and what they bring to Knoxville.
Tim Banks, Defensive coordinator
Tim Banks comes to Tennessee after spending the last five seasons as the safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator at Penn State. After being turned down by a plethora of candidates, Heupel targeted Banks and made him an offer he couldn’t turn down, a three-year contract that will net him $1.3 million in 2021 with $100,000 increases each season.
Banks has an interesting tie to Tennessee, having gotten his first chance as a defensive coordinator under Butch Jones at Central Michigan. From there, Banks spent two seasons as co-defensive coordinator and defensive back coach at Cincinnati under Jones, then four seasons as the defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach at Illinois before going to Penn State.
Banks doesn’t have a title as a specific position, but his coaching past and Heupel’s comments today indicated he would be heavily involved in coaching the defensive backs.
“I’ll be working with both,” Banks said. “I’ve coached the back in for a long time and obviously played the position. Having Willie Martinez with us gives me a lot of flexibility. If I’m training the corners I feel very confident he can train the safeties and we’ll be on the same page. Anytime you’re dealing with the back end you want to make sure those guys understand and hear one message. We can’t have anything lost in translation.”
Banks is an established veteran defensive assistant, but wasn’t the head defensive coordinator in Happy Valley, Pennsylvania. With Heupel’s offensive focus this will be a major test and opportunity for Banks to have full control over his defense.
As for schematics, Banks was non-committal, wanting to learn more about his roster so he could adjust based on what his players can and can’t do.
“As far as the 4-3 or 3-4 and all those types of things, once again what do we have to work with?” Banks said. “As we continue to go through spring and evaluate it we’ll make some decisions moving forward that obviously put our players in the best light which in turn puts our defense in the right light.”
Rodney Garner, Defensive line
With over 30 years as an SEC assistant, there’s no man with more pedigree recruiting or coaching in the south than Tennessee’s newest defensive line coach Rodney Garner.
Garner’s coaching career began in 1990 at his alma mater Auburn, where he spent six seasons as the tight end coach. Garner spent two seasons on Phil Fulmer’s staff in Knoxville serving as tight ends and offensive tackle coach.
Garner left Knoxville for Athens where he spent 15 seasons as Georgia’s defensive line coach. From there, Garner went back to Auburn where he’s held the same position for eight seasons.
After spending two seasons in Knoxville, when Tennessee football was at its best, Garner is committed to helping it reach those peaks again.
“It’s good to be back on Rocky Top,” Garner said. “It’s exciting for me and my family. It’s something we’ve talked about — life’s coming full circle. Being able to come back here and obviously we were here in the late ‘90s, just the opportunity to get Tennessee back to elite status that we feel like it belongs to. Just trying to play whatever role for me to be able to contribute to that.”
Garner has earned the reputation as one of the SEC’s best assistant coaches in his tenure, largely due to his efforts on the recruiting trail, including at Tennessee where he was critical in signing stars Deon Grant, Tee Martin and Jamal Lewis.
Still, Garner is known as being a great teacher of the game, developing seven defensive lineman drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft and 10 All Americans.
Tennessee has some talent on the defensive line and was effective at that position in 2019. However, the unit struggled in 2020 as defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh was fired four games into the season.
“We have to find a way to help them improve and execute at a high level,” Garner said. “The one thing that I think is very consistent is these guys are hungry, they want to win and they want to play better and want to improve their game.”
Mike Ekeler, Special teams coordinator, Outside linebacker coach
Mike Ekeler was a fireball of emotion talking to the media, matching the legends of the veteran college defensive assistant.
Ekeler wouldn’t confirm or deny the rumor that he punched Jeremy Pruitt while they were both assistant coaches under Mark Richt at Georgia, but did talk about waking up at 3:30 A.M., running a marathon after a lost bet at practice and coaching like a man who drinks Red Bull.
Ekeler spent the last season coaching special teams at North Texas but has spent time on the defensive staff at North Carolina, Kansas, Georgia, Nebraska, Indiana and USC.
The Nebraska native is no stranger to coaching special teams and has high expectations for his unit in Knoxville.
“One thing that we’ll do is play our tails off,” Ekeler said. “We’re going to be all about technique and we’re going to play hard and we’re going to play clean.”
“I really feel like we have a good foundation and good culture from the special teams standpoint. Guys played hard. We have some really good skill players, and I’m excited to get out there in spring practice and work with them.”
On top of special teams, Ekeler will also help coach the outside linebackers, where his primary coaching experience is.
Brian Jean-Mary, Linebackers
Brian Jean-Mary brings a rich history of coaching defense to Tennessee’s staff. Jean-Mary spent last season as the linebackers coach at Michigan and has also coached linebackers in stints at Texas, Louisville and Georgia Tech.
Jean-Mary also spent three seasons as the defensive coordinator at South Florida prior to coaching at Michigan. The 46-year old not only brings experience calling a defense to the Vols’ staff but has also coached against Heupel’s offense.
“Obviously I have a history with coach Heupel and respect everything he’s done with not just the offensive guys as a coordinator but what he’s done as a head coach,” Jean-Mary said. “From the experiences at UCF, a very very explosive, aggressive team. A team that’s going to take their shots, obviously as far as getting down field, but a team you have to defend sideline-to-sideline that’s equally explosive with the pass game as they were with the run game. Probably one of the more difficult teams to prepare for.”
There aren’t many coaches who face as difficult a task this offseason as Jean-Mary does. The Vols linebackers were okay a season ago but starters Henry To’o To’o and Quavaris Crouch have both entered the transfer portal.
Jeremy Banks is Tennessee’s only returning linebacker with more than brief in-game experience, but Jean-Mary has been happy with the early returns from his unit.
“The guys have been attentive and very eager to learn coach Banks’ new system,” Jean-Mary said. “They’ve come in with a bounce in their step with some of the things coach Heupel has installed so far for the program. It’s been great every day we’ve had a chance to get together. Those guys have been sponges, getting to the point where they’re a lot more comfortable asking questions.”
Willie Martinez, Secondary
Willie Martinez brings over 10 seasons of coaching experience in the SEC and has ties with Heupel, coaching for him the last three seasons at Central Florida.
Martinez’s coaching experience included stops at Georgia, where he served as defensive coordinator for five seasons, Auburn and most recently Tennessee, where he spent the five years on Butch Jones staff.
Martinez knows Tennessee better than anyone on the staff due to his time in Knoxville and even helped recruit some of the Vols’ veteran defensive backs.
“A couple guys I was a part of recruiting — Theo Jackson is someone I wanted while I was here,” Martinez said. “We thought he was the right mindset and he was the right athlete and that kind of holds true to form right now just watching the video I’ve watched on him and seeing the person he’s become. Alontae Taylor’s another one that had committed to us at a young age and I’d recruited as a young man, we’re talking about ninth, 10th grade year. To see the leader he’s become is really exciting. For me, that’s why I got into coaching. … There’s some there like Cheyenne (Labruzza), he hasn’t had the career he wanted due to injuries but he’s still a super, super young man.”
Outside of his time with Heupel and in the SEC, Martinez has coached at Cincinnati, Central Michigan, Oklahoma and UCF again while Heupel was still in high school.