2011 Tennessee Preview – Defense

Posted May 23, 2011

CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Tennessee Volunteer Defense

Tennessee Volunteers

Preview 2011 - Defense

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What You Need To Know: A few adjustments were made from the Monte Kiffin Tampa-2 defense, and for the most part, the D did a good job. Yes, Oregon ran wild in Knoxville and UAB bombed away, but the production was a bit better than the overall stats might indicate. More of a pass rush is a must from the ends, the linebacking corps needs to find two new, reliable starters, and the secondary could use a more playmakers, but overall the potential is there for a better year. It all starts up front with former USC Trojan Malik Jackson manning the starting defensive tackle spot, and there's size across the line to help him out. Prentiss Waggner is a rising star safety who'll lead a veteran group of defensive backs that have to tighten up after giving up 200 passing yards or more to just about everyone. Linebacker is the question mark where a few true freshmen might have to upgrade the talent level for what should be a decent, but unspectacular group.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Herman Lathers, 75
Sacks: Malik Jackson, 5
Interceptions: Prentiss Waggner, 5

Star of the defense: Senior DT Malik Jackson
Player who has to step up and be a star: Senior MLB Austin Johnson
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DE Jacques Smith
Best pro prospect: Jackson
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Jackson, 2) FS Prentiss Waggner, 3) LB Herman Lathers
Strength of the defense: Defensive Tackle, Secondary Experience
Weakness of the defense: Line Backer, Proven Pass Rushing Ends

Defensive Line

State of the Unit: The line was okay, but for Tennessee, okay isn't good enough. There's size, talent, and lots of options, and the potential to go from good to terrific, but it might take a little bit until the good prospects can blossom into steady performers. Enough talent returns to prevent the production from falling off the map, but it might take a little while for everything to come together.

The excitement up front surrounds all the young, rising stars, but the best player on the line should once again be senior Malik Jackson, versatile playmaker who started the first part of the year at left end and ended up finding a home as a defensive tackle. The former USC star recruit made 18 tackles with 3.5 sacks in 2009 for the Trojans and was able to step in right away for the Vols last year and produce earning Second Team All-SEC honors. The 6-5, 270-pound tweener made 48 tackles with five sacks and 11 tackles for loss, and he came up with an interception for 44 yards against Memphis.

6-2, 245-pound sophomore Jacques Smith saw a little bit of time in every game as a true freshman and showed excellent upside making 24 tackles with two sacks and five tackles for loss. Considered to be one of the top prospects out of Tennessee, and was Scout.com's No. 8 defensive end, and he could explode in a full-time starting role on the left side. Backing him up will be 6-5, 250-pound junior Steven Fowlkes after setting a little bit of time over the last few years and making three stops in 2010.

Junior Willie Bohannon might not be the team's best lineman, but he's among the most experienced seeing plenty of action over the last few years and making nine tackles with two sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss last season. After waiting his turn, the 6-2, 251-pounder is getting his shot at the right end job with good quickness off the ball and excellent closing speed. 6-2, 281-pound sophomore Marlon Walls will push for time as a big, versatile option. He was expected to be a big part of the equation last year, was suspended for a time for his part in a bar fight, and missed all of 2010 with an Achilles tendon injury. Able to work inside or out, he has the tools – he was a high school sprinter - to become a dangerous pass rusher and big run stopper in the rotation.

Moving over from the offensive side is sophomore Daniel Hood, a 6-4, 293-pound Academic All-SEC performer in the classroom who saw a little bit of time on the O line. He's big, strong, and a serviceable option on the nose, but he might be keeping the seat warm until other options are ready. 6-4, 327-pound junior Montori Hughes has talent to be a star in the interior, coming up with 20 tackles as a true freshman and 17 stops with a sack last year. The star recruit of 2009 hasn't lived up to the hype, but he'll get his chance, while 6-3, 263-pound sophomore Joseph Ayres will get his chances in the rotation after making 13 tackles with a sack.

There's a shot that 6-2, 305-pound JUCO transfer Maurice Couch will be the best player on the interior right away. A star for Garden City CC after making 110 tackles and 13 sacks in his senior year of high school, he's big, strong, and tough enough to hold up at either tackle spot. The expectations are high.

Watch Out For … Bohannon. He got a few chances over the last two years, but he hasn't been able to push his way through for starting time. Now that the job is his, and with the talent in the interior taking up blockers, he should get into the backfield on a regular basis.
Strength: Size. Hughes is a 327-pound block on the inside, and while he's the big body, the Vols have man-sized players at all four spots and among the reserves. Walls is a 281-pound reserve end and the 305-pound Couch can stuff things up wherever he plays.
Weakness: Sure-thing pass rushers. It's not like the Vol line was sitting in the backfield on a regular basis, but there was enough production to get by. Jackson is a sure-thing, but the line won't work if Smith, Bohannon, and the other ends have to shine.
Outlook: The line was okay, but it has to be great considering the linebacking corps will need help. Jackson is a great star to build around and there are several excellent tackle options to make the interior a plus. The key will be the ends with Smith and Bohannon with the spotlight on, and while they might not come up with a ton of sacks, they have to be disruptive.
Unit Rating: 7


State of the Unit: Nick Reveiz led the team with 108 tackles, and now he's gone. LaMarcus Thompson had a good year making 60 stops, and he's gone too. There's talent returning, but the linebacking corps will likely rely on a few true freshmen to play key roles early on to push the veterans.

The one sure returning starter who has a job is 6-0, 222-pound junior Herman Lathers on the weakside after finishing second on the team with 75 tackles with 2.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss. He had the unenviable task of replacing Rico McCoy, and he came through with flying colors as a good hitter who's always around the ball. Quick, tough, and versatile, he can be used even more as a pass rusher.

Stepping into the starting spot in the middle, for now, will be 6-2, 235-pound senior Austin Johnson, who started out his career as a fullback and has to fill in for Reveiz. While he might not be the leader that Reveiz was, he has the toughness and talent to be one of the team's leading tacklers after making 44 tackles with a pick and 3.5 tackles for loss. At 6-2 and 235 pounds he has decent size and brings great thump. Backing him up will be 6-0, 225-pound sophomore John Propst after making 14 tackles as a true freshman. With good range and nice tackling ability, he'll produce whenever he's on the field.

Senior Daryl Vereen isn't big at 5-11 and 215 pounds on the strongside, but he's a strong hitter. In his limited time he came up with 18 tackles with a sack, and while he might not be a special player, he knows what he's doing and will hold his own. True sophomore Raiques Crump saw time in 11 games and made 13 stops working mostly as a special teamer. He's a bit bigger on the strongside with more speed.

The hope will be for a few true freshmen to step up and shine, led by 6-3, 245-pound A.J. Johnson and 6-2, 235-pound Christian Harris. Johnson is a pure middle linebacker who finished up his high school career making 173 tackles last year and with 464 stops in three years. He's the team's biggest linebacker option and can move, while Harris is a great tackler who can be used on the outside as a pass rusher.

Watch Out For … the freshmen. The linebackers on the post-spring two-deep are fine, but there isn't a true star in the bunch. Johnson had to be re-recruited after the coaching change and talked about going to USC, and now he should quickly be one of the stars. Harris isn't as good, but he can step in on the outside.
Strength: Tacklers. The Vol linebackers can get their man down. Lathers is a guided missile at times, while Austin Johnson and Vereen aren't going to miss any stops. The stats are going to be there.
Weakness: Depth. There are a few decent prospects like Propst, but there's little to count on right away if injuries hit the corps. There will be a good rotation, but it'll take a little time.
Outlook: It's an overstatement to suggest that this will be a weakness, but it'll likely take a few breakout performance for the linebackers to be a major plus. They'll be helped by a good line that'll take care of business, and the stats will be there, but the key will be to find meaningful plays at the point of attack.
Unit Rating: 6.5

Defensive Backs

State of the Unit: The Volunteer secondary struggled a bit against the better passers, allowing 230 yards per game, but the pass efficiency defense stats were excellent finishing 30th in the nation. There's enough starting experience returning to think that things might be better, but it all might depend on one key player returning.

Janzen Jackson was never going to be Eric Berry, but he turned into a tremendous playmaker finishing third on the team with 69 tackles with five picks, 11 passes defended, a sack, and four tackles for loss as the starting free safety. However, the junior-to-be left the team for "personal reasons" in January and is still out. The coaching staff, though, is hopeful that he might be back, but have to plan for life without him.

Whether or not Jackson is back, junior Prentiss Waggner will play a huge role after starting the first half of last year at strong safety and finishing up at right corner. The versatile 6-2, 181-pounder was supposed to be a top nickel defender and ended up doing a little of everything making 57 tackles with five interceptions and three fumble recoveries on the way to Second Team All-SEC honors. He proved he could be both physical and reliable in pass coverage, and for now, he'll get the call at free safety. 6-0, 214-pound junior Rob Wilks is another big option for the spot after seeing time in just four games. The athleticism is there to go along with the size, but he has to prove he can make things happen when he gets his chance.

With Waggner moving, it'll be a combination of 5-11, 185-pound senior Anthony Anderson and 5-10, 185-pound freshman Justin Coleman combining forces at right corner. Anderson has been a reliable reserve over the last few years with the size and speed to play almost anywhere, making 26 tackles with a pick, while Coleman was a good recruit who's expected to see time right away to get his speed on the field. A blazer, he has a great burst to the ball and has the wheels to stay with any SEC receiver.

Working on the other side will be veteran Marsalis Teague, a 5-10, 177-pound junior who started out his career as a wide receiver but moved over to the defensive side last year making 46 tackles with eight broken up passes. He started most of the first half of the year on the right side before moving over to the left side late, and now he knows what he's doing as the No. 1 cover corner. Sophomore Eric Gordon came up with a great redshirt freshman year making 47 tackles with two picks as a spot starter at both positions. A huge hitter for a 5-9, 185-pounder, he has good skills to work behind Teague or as a nickel and dime defender.

6-1, 210-pound sophomore Brent Brewer started six games as a true freshman and worked most of the year as a key special teamer. Now he'll be the main man at strong safety after taking over the job late last year. A mature player who spent four years in the Milwaukee Brewer farm system, he made 30 tackles with three broken up passes. With the full-time gig, he should be one of the team's top tackles, but he needs to make a few more plays when the ball is in the air.

Watch Out For … Waggner to become a standout. The soap opera surrounding Jackson might overshadow that Waggner is on the verge of becoming the next great Tennessee safety. He started to show off what he could do with a strong sophomore season, and he'll make an impact no matter where he plays.
Strength: Experience. Jackson will be missed if he really is done, and Tyler Wolf was a decent reserve, but that's it as far as lost production – and Jackson could still be back. The starting foursome will be fine if Brewer is the fourth man in the mix, and after the right combination was found over the second half of last year, the veterans are in place.
Weakness: Good passers. There was a decent pass rush to help the cause, but everyone but UT Martin, Florida, and Ole Miss threw for more than 200 yards. Here's the thing; the Vol secondary missed Ryan Mallett and Cam Newton. Alabama's Greg McElroy went wild and just about everyone else was able to put up yards.
Outlook: The experience is there for this to be a very good secondary, and it could be special if Jackson comes back. There's good depth, great hitters, and nice athleticism across the board. Waggner is about to be special and Teague, Anderson, and Coleman are fine corners to count on.
Unit Rating: 7

Special Teams

State of the Unit: Daniel Lincoln is gone after making 10-of-11 field goals with time lost in the middle of the year before taking over again late. Filling in the gap was sophomore Michael Palardy, who did a decent job hitting 5-of-7 kicks but missing both his attempts from beyond 39 yards. He was a star kicker recruit who's expected to be the main man for the next three years, and he has the talent and potential to be an all-star if he can start showing off a little bit of range. He can also work as a punter if needed.

The Vols were a mediocre 62nd in the nation with Chad Cunningham averaging 42.3 yards per try and putting 17 kicks inside the 20, and now it'll be redshirt freshman Matt Darr will get the job with a huge leg and tremendous upside. He was going to USC but switched late in the game, and now one of the nation's top punting recruits of 2009 should shine if he can be consistent.

Corner Eric Gordon was the main punt returner averaging just 6.5 yards per try, and he'll get a long look for the job, but he's a better kickoff returner averaging 23.1 yards per attempt. Anthony Anderson, though, will start out as the team's top punt return option and WR Da'Rick Rogers will get the first look as the top punt return option.

Watch Out For … Darr to be fantastic. Some considered him the No. 1 kicker/punter recruit in the nation, and while he might take awhile to be accurate and consistent, he'll get more blast than Cunningham.
Strength: Kickoff coverage. The Vols did a nice job of keeping good returners under wraps and allowed just 19 yards per try. In time, the kicking and punting games will be excellent.
Weakness: Returns. A lot more production is a must considering the speed and athleticism up and down the roster. Tennessee finished 109th in the nation in punt returns and was a mediocre 67th in kickoff returns. There needs to be more explosion.
Outlook: The special teams have been mediocre for way too long, but the talent at kicker and punter is undeniable and there's speed in the return game. The coverage teams have been way too lousy for years and need to tighten up, and it's asking for too much for young kickers to be stars right away, but the overall special teams can't help but be a bit better.
Unit Rating: 6
- 2011 Tennessee Preview | 2011 Tennessee Offense
- 2011 Tennessee Defense | 2011 Tennessee Depth Chart
- Tennessee Previews  2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006