2013 Tennessee Preview – Defense
CollegeFootballNews.com 2013 Preview - Tennessee Volunteer Defense
Preview 2013 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: The pieces are there to play around with, and there should be a massive overall improvement, but there's a long way to go for the defense to be merely decent. The D made a few big adjustments from the old Monte Kiffin Tampa-2 and the results were completely and utterly disastrous finishing dead last in the SEC in total defense and scoring defense with no toughness up front and few stops from the secondary. Defensive coordinator John Jancek's first job was to switch things up to a true 4-3 and simplify the roles a little bit. On the plus side, he has plenty of experience to work with and lots of promise across the board starting with one of the SEC's best linebackers, A.J. Johnson. The expected return of linebacker Curt Maggitt and safety Brian Randolph from torn ACLs should give the D two top playmakers, but they need to be 100% and the production needs to come from all the other pieces. The corners have to start picking off passes and the big line has to start stopping the run on a consistent basis.
Star of the defense: Junior LB A.J. Johnson
Tackles: A.J. Johnson, 138
Sacks: Curt Maggitt, Jacques Smith, Jordan Williams, 2
Interceptions: Byron Moore, 5
Player who has to step up and be a star: Junior CB Riyahd Jones
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore S Brian Randolph
Best pro prospect: Johnson
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Johnson, 2) S Byron Moore, 3) LB Curt Maggitt
Strength of the defense: Experience, Safeties
Weakness of the defense: Corners, Pass Rush
Any improvement on the defense has to start with more of a pass rush and stronger play against the run, and that starts in the interior with 6-8, 360-pound senior Daniel McCullers, a massive, MASSIVE JUCO transfer out of North Carolina who actually slimmed down to get to his current weight. Not just a big guy for the interior, he can actually move a little bit with a sack and 5.5 tackles for loss to go along with 39 stops. Now he has to start playing more up to his size and bulk and be much, much stronger at the point of attack for the ground game. He'll be backed up by the smaller, quicker Corey Miller, who was out of the mix last offseason but rejoined the team in time to make 18 tackles with a sack and five tackles for loss. Able to play anywhere on the line, the 6-3, 257-pound senior will be at his best in the interior.
After working mostly in a rotation, 6-2, 299-pound senior Maurice Couch will once again be the main man at the other tackle spot, following up a 37-tackle 2011 with 38 stops and four tackles for loss. The former JUCO transfer from Garden City CC is a terrific interior option with the upside to do far, far more with size, strength and quickness. He has all the tools, but now he has to use them. Staying fresh shouldn't be a problem with 6-4, 292-pound senior Daniel Hood back as a big part of the rotation back after seeing a little time here and there making seven tackles. The academic all-star who started out his career as a offensive lineman hasn't made a huge impact, but he now has the experience to see more time.
Senior Marlon Walls has been a spot-starter over the years but now he'll get a full-time job in the new scheme after coming up with 13 tackles with a tackle for loss. At 6-2 and 285 pounds he has 3-4 end size and decent toughness against the run. He's a big, versatile option who could step in at tackle if needed, but he'll give it a shot at end where he needs to use his bulk to get to the quarterback. He's not a pure pass rusher, but he should be a big part of the run defense. He'll work in a rotation with junior Jordan Williams, a 6-5, 256-pound spot-starter who came up with 17 tackles with two sacks working more in a hybrid role. The Gainesville native got away from Florida, and now he has to start growing into more of a steady pass rusher.
At 6-2 and 244 pounds, senior Jacques Smith is built more like a linebacker than a true end, but he has the upside to be the team's top pass rusher if the rest of the line is able to do its job. He only came up with two sacks and seven tackles for loss, but he led the way with eight quarterback hurries to go along with 33 stops. The former superstar recruit has hybrid size and the quickness to be a breakout producer.
Watch Out For … Jason Carr, an end by trade with the potential to grow into a devastating interior pass rusher. The best of a big lot of recruits for the defensive line, he's 6-5, 260 pounds and explosive off the ball. Wanted by everyone, he has next-level tools with terrific pass rushing potential.
Strength: Size. It's hard not to have a big line with McCullers occupying half the field in the interior, but the rest of the line is large, too. Smith isn't small at 244 pounds, but as long as Walls is playing on the outside, this is a bulky front four that looks up to SEC snuff. However …
Weakness: Playing football. The line was a complete and total disaster last season with a mediocre 17 sacks and no presence whatsoever against the run. There's a massive prove-it factor for a shockingly soft, talented line with the upside to far, far more.
Outlook: The coaching change and the switch in scheme and attitude could make a night-and-day difference. There's bulk, strength and talent in place to flip the switch and be terrific, and with the experience and upside returning, this can and should be the team's biggest area of improvement.
Unit Rating: 7
The defense might have been a disaster overall, but junior A.J. Johnson was fantastic proving his great freshman campaign wasn't a fluke. One of the SEC's best all-around defenders in 2011, the 6-3, 240-pounder was even better making 138 tackles with a sack, 8.5 tackles for loss and eight quarterback hurries. While he might have been a bit of a function of the old system, he showed he could work in the middle or on the outside with massive production as he cleaned up several messes making 21 stops against Mississippi State, 14 against Alabama, and cranked up 11 tackles or more in each of the last ten games. A pure tackler, 464 stops in high school and isn't missing a stop at the next level.
Johnson will start in the middle if there's any sort of a setback for 6-3, 240-pound junior Curt Maggitt, a terrific tackler who came up with 30 tackles with two sacks and five tackles for loss before suffering a torn ACL. While he's expected to be back and fine this year, it's still going to be really, really soon for the former high school wide receiver to be 100%. He's a great athlete with limitless upside once he's healthy. If he's not right, and if Johnson doesn't move to the inside, then 6-1, 246-pound Kenny Bynum should be ready to go after suffering a knee injury of his own early last year. Really, really strong and a mauler of a tackler, he'll someday be one of the team's top statistical stars.
With Herman Lathers gone, 6-3, 224-pound senior Dontavis Sapp should be ready to make a bigger impact after getting a few starts and finishing with 17 tackles with 2.5 tackles for loss. Very quick and potentially decent as a weakside defender, he needs to be the pass rusher that Lathers occasionally was.
Watch Out For … Corey Vereen, who might end up at defensive end but will likely see time early on as a linebacker. At 6-2 and 230 pounds he's built for the middle with the type of motor and guided missile-like hitting ability to eventually be a dangerous pass rusher and a top tackler.
Strength: Johnson. Maggitt will be great if and when he's healthy again, and Sapp looked like a keeper this offseason, but everything works around Johnson, who's every bit as good as his stats. As long as he's a steady force, everything else should work well.
Weakness: Run defense. Yes, the linebackers make lots and lots of plays, but way too many of them are down the field and there's not enough of a pass rush. The Vol linebackers have experience and talent, but the production has to follow.
Outlook: The move from a modified 3-4 to a 4-3 will help the depth and better define the roles. More beef up front on the line should be a big help for the linebacking corps that can focus simply on making plays against the run – they don't have to do everything for the defensive front. The depth has to emerge and Maggitt has to be healthy, but Johnson is an all-star and there's talent to work around.
Unit Rating: 7
A nightmare at times last year, the secondary has to get far, far more from the corners and more big plays from the safeties. However, senior Byron Moore did his part finishing second on the team with 86 tackles with a team-leading five picks. At 6-1 and 193 pounds he has good size and the versatility to play either safety spot, starting part of the season at strong safety before stepping in at free safety. Great at getting to the ball, he came up with a pick-six against Georgia and was steady throughout the year against the run when needed. The former Los Angeles Harbor CC star will do a little of everything for the secondary again.
When Moore moved over to free safety, 6-1, 195-pound sophomore LaDarrell McNeil stepped in at strong safety and was okay, but struggled a bit through his true freshman campaign making 58 tackles but not doing much of anything against the pass. A great recruit, he has the versatility and the tackling skills, but he'll mostly work as a nickel or dime defender now that sophomore Brian Randolph is back at free safety. The 6-0, 195-pounder stepped in as a true freshman and finished fifth on the team with 55 tackles, and he started to shine early on last season making 22 tackles with two broken up passes before getting hurt with a torn ACL. On the plus side he got hurt early on in the season and had time to heal, and it was also early enough to give him back a year of eligibility. Very smart and very athletic, if he's right he'll make a huge difference for the secondary.
Is Eric Gordon going to be back? Off the team this offseason to deal with some personal issues, he was one of the team's top nickel defenders making 41 tackles with two picks, but he's also one of the team's most experience corners. The Vols need options at the spot on the other side of Justin Coleman, the team's unquestioned No. 1 corner with 5-10, 182-pound size and nice hitting ability. Now he needs to start picking off a few passes with just three broken up passes, however, he came up with 59 tackles and should be able to lock down on most top targets with his aggressive style and next-level speed.
The second corner job is a big question mark hoping for 6-0, 186-pound junior Riyahd Jones to show more than he did this offseason. After starting his career at Georgia Southern and coming to Tennessee through Garden City CC, the 6-0, 186-pounder has decent size and 4.5 speed, but he needs to be more consistent and can't chase so much. He'll be pushed by Lemond Johnson, a former quarterback who might be needed as a receiver but will be tried out in the secondary. At 6-1 and 190 pounds he'll either be a safety or a good-sized corner, but he has the skills and athleticism to work anywhere in the secondary and shine.
Watch Out For … Jaylen Reeves-Maybin. Is he a linebacker or a safety? At 6-1 and 200 pounds he's not built to be an SEC linebacker, but he's an outside playmaker by trade. An elite all-around athlete and a peerless tackler, he should eventually become a whale of a strong safety.
Strength: Safety. If Randolph is back and healthy, the safeties should be fantastic with Moore an all-star caliber playmaker and McNeil a good option to find a spot somewhere. They should be steady while the corners try to improve.
Weakness: Cornerback interceptions. There weren't many. Berry came up with two, and Prentiss Waggner got two, but for the most part the corners were roasted and didn't come up with nearly enough big plays. Overall, Tennessee came up with four picks in the opener against NC State, three against Akron and five in the other ten games.
Outlook: The defensive backs struggled way, way too much giving up 200 yards or more against everyone but Georgia State. Anyone who could throw a forward pass was able to do it efficiently and effectively, and while there's experience and speed returning, there have to be more big plays and more third down stops.
Unit Rating: 6.5
Senior Michael Palardy was a star recruit, and while he has been good as a placekicker, he has been better as a punter. He nailed 9-of-12 field goals last season but he didn't show any range missing a 43-yarder and topping out with a 38-yard shot against Mississippi State. However, he stepped up for the punting game averaging 43.1 yards per kick putting 16 inside the 20.
Junior Matt Darr was supposed to be the punter, but he struggled a bit averaging just 38.1 yards per try and only averaging 39 yards per kick on his 16 tries. He'll have to fight to get by Palardy, while junior Derrick Brodus will battle for the placekicking duties after hitting 6-of-7 from short range.
Devrin Young did a decent job as a punt returner averaging 9.7 yards per try, but he'll need to explode to replace Cordarrelle Patterson, who came up with an 81-yard score to averaging 25.2 yards per try on his just four attempts. Young has the quickness to be a steady factor, and he'll also get a chance on kickoff returns after averaging just 17.8 yards per try. Running back Rajion Neal will get the first shot at replacing Patterson's 28-yard average.
Watch Out For … the kickoff returners. Patterson was special, but no one else managed to do much of anything with everyone else averaging under 18 yards per try. Neal should be fine, but it has to be an area of improvement.
Strength: Kicking options. Palardy might not be special and Darr and Broadus might not have shown too much, but there are options to play around with if Palardy doesn't do it all for the kicking game.
Weakness: Big legs. Palardy has the leg to be tried out from 50, but he didn't get any chances last season. He didn't blast too many big punts, and Darr and Brodus don't crank up big shots.
Outlook: After several awful years, the special teams have at least been serviceable and solid in several areas. Losing Patterson hurts, but it's Tennessee, so there's speed for the return game and the kickers are experienced, but all the way around everyone needs to be better and the coverage teams could stand to be a wee bit tighter.
Unit Rating: 6
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