Preview 2007 - Defense
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What you need to know:
Is there a defense in America that's produced less with so much
promise and potential? The Vols have a who's who of top high
school prospects that haven't quite panned out, and now that has
to change to have any hope of winning the SEC East. Jerod Mayo
will move from the outside to the middle and Jonathan Hefney
returns at free safety to give the Vols two All-America caliber
defenders to build around. Now there needs to be more of a pass
rush after coming up with an inexcusable 17 sacks, and the new
starting tackles have to quickly emerge. The secondary has to
replace three starters, but should be fine in time, while the
linebacking corps, if healthy, will be among the SEC's best.
Jonathan Hefney, 96
Jerod Mayo, 5
Interceptions: Jonathan Hefney, 5
Star of the defense: Senior FS Jonathan Hefney
Player that has to step up and become a star: Senior DT
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Rico McCoy
Best pro prospect: Hefney
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Hefney, 2) LB Jerod
Mayo, 3) DE Xavier Mitchell
Strength of the defense: Athleticism, Hefney and Mayo,
Weakness of the defense:
Living up to the potential, defensive tackles
Projected Starters: One of the team's most
experienced position is defensive end, but the veterans have to
be far better. 6-2, 255-pound junior Xavier Mitchell is
the team's best linemen and most likely All-SEC prospect. Coming
off a shoulder problem, he was a decent pass rusher with four
sacks and 13 quarterback hurries, to go along with 32 tackles.
Extremely athletic, he's quick off the ball. If he starts to
finish off his plays with bigger hits and more sacks, he has a
shot to be the difference maker the line needs.
On the other side will be 6-3, 270-pound junior Antonio
Reynolds, a bulky end who failed to generate much in the way
of pressure. He made 37 tackles and a sack after getting a
full-time job, starting ten games and missing two with a neck
injury. While he struggled throughout the year with his
consistency, he came back from his injury with his best game of
the year in the bowl loss to Penn State. He's too strong and too
quick to not do more.
While more s hoped for from the ends, the tackles are the bigger
issue. 6-4, 290-pound senior J.T. Mapu was a
mega-disappointment after spending two years away on a church
mission. Considered a top talent before leaving, he only made
eight tackles and didn't do nearly enough to show he deserved a
bigger role. With tremendous quickness, the hope will be for him
to turn into a great interior pass rusher.
Taking over at the other tackle spot will likely be 6-6,
290-pound junior Demonte Bolden after making 22 tackles
and four tackles for loss. A superstar prospect when he came to
Tennessee, he hasn't come close to playing up to the hype. He
started to come on over the second half of last year to offer
hope that he'll eventually become the key stopper on the inside
many expected him to become long ago.
Projected Top Reserves: Pushing Bolden for
starting time at left tackle will be 6-3, 310-pound sophomore
Dan Williams, one of the team's biggest linemen. He only
made two tackles last year, but he had a nice spring and should
grow into a starter sooner than later. He has a world of upside.
6-3, 260-pound junior Robert Ayers turned into a great
reserve with a couple of spot starts when Reynolds was out. He
finished with 25 tackles, but didn't do nearly enough to get
into the backfield with just one sack and three tackles for
loss. With tremendous speed, he should play a bigger role on the
Watch Out For ... a possible shift from time to
time to a 3-4. The coaching staff played around with it this
spring, and while it won't be a regular alignment, it could be
used more than everyone might like if the tackles don't start to
Strength: Potential. The line is full of big-time
prospects that came to Knoxville with a boatload of promise.
Bolden, Mapu and Mitchell were just a few of the sure-thing NFL
stars-in-waiting who haven't been remotely close. If the light
clicks on for just a couple of the starters, the production all
across the front should be tremendous.
Weakness: Tackles. Forgetting that Turk McBride and Matt
McGlothlin have to be replaced as run stoppers, the Vol line has
to start generating more pressure from the inside. If Mapu,
Bolden and Williams don't start to be more active, there won't
be much of an overall defensive improvement.
This might be the most important unit in the SEC race. If
everyone starts to play up to their potential and everyone
starts to get into the backfield on a regular basis, the defense
could be tremendous and Tennessee will be a true player in the
East. If there's a drop-off from last year, when there was no
pass rush and not enough done against the run, it'll be another
disappointment season. All the Janes have to start playing like
Projected Starters: If and when he can stay
healthy, 6-2, 230-pound junior Jerod Mayo will be an
All-America caliber difference maker who'll be the leader of the
defense. Third on the team with 83 tackles, while leading the
way with five sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss, he's a disruptive
force who'll move from the outside to the middle. The problem is
his luck with injuries, suffering ankle and knee problems that
kept him out for a stretch in spring ball. With strength and
speed, he has it all to grow into something special.
Starting in Mayo's place on the weakside will be 6-1, 215-pound
sophomore Rico McCoy, who got the starting nod in the
last two games of last year and finished with 38 tackles and
three tackles for loss. While undersized, he has all the makings
of becoming an all-conference talent in the near future with
tremendous speed and toughness.
Back on the strongside after starting every game is 6-0,
218-pound Ryan Karl. While he isn't the team's most
talented linebacker, he's tough as nails and holds his own well
against the run with 66 stops and nine tackles for loss. He's
not bad against the pass and is strong at cleaning up everything
that comes his way.
Projected Top Reserves: If Mayo is banged up or
ends up playing on the outside for any stretch, 5-10, 225-pound
junior Ellix Wilson will take over in the middle after a
13-tackle season. He might not be big for an inside linebacker,
but he's tremendously fast and could play on the weakside if
needed. He's the brother of former UT star receiver, Cedrick
Playing behind Karl on the strongside will be 6-2, 215-pound
junior Adam Myers-White, a smart, decent reserve who made
nine tackles. More of a safety than a linebacker, he'll see a
little bit of time at several spots throughout the year, but
he'll mostly make his mark on special teams.
6-2, 215-pound sophomore Dorian Davis is a star special
teamer with good potential on the weakside. Built like a safety,
he also runs like one and should be a good reserve behind McCoy.
He should be a key part of the rotation.
Watch Out For ... Mayo to grow into an
All-American. He has tremendous talent to go along with plenty
of heart, and as long as he stays healthy, he'll be a difference
maker to build a defense around.
Strength: The starting three. There aren't many better
linebacking corps in the SEC if Mayo, Karl and McCoy can stay
together for a full season. There's decent depth to rely on in a
pinch and should be able to be folded into the mix without a
Weakness: Injuries. The corps is relying on Mayo, who
hasn't been able to shake knee and ankle problems, and McCoy,
who missed a year with a foot injury, to be the steadiest
defenders in the front seven. There are a lot of chips riding on
Size is a bit of an issue with safeties playing on the outside,
but everyone is tough, everyone can hit, and Jerod Mayo makes up
for any overall problems by moving to the middle to take on an
expanded role. The pressure will be on the corps to shine right
away and carry the D until the line and secondary come around.
This group is good enough to do it.
Projected Starters: Only one starter returns, but
he's a superstar. While undersized at 5-9 and 185 pounds, senior
free safety Jonathan Hefney is a superior hitter and
sure-thing tackler with 226 career stops with nine
interceptions. 2006 was his best season yet with 96 tackles, led
by an incredible 17-tackle game against Air Force, with five
interceptions. Tough as nails and speedy like a corner, he's be
a sure-thing top ten draft pick if he was about ten pounds
heavier and a little bit bigger overall. Along with being one of
the nation's elite defensive backs, he's a top punt returner.
Taking over the full-time job at strong safety will be 6-3,
200-pound senior Jarod Parrish after not doing much
throughout his career, hurt by a knee injury, and making two
tackles last year. He was a superstar high school basketball
player and a top baseball player. Now he has to show he can be
steady in place of the booted Demitrice Morley.
Both starting corners need to be replaced, but 5-9, 180-pound
Marsalous Johnson appears to be ready to step in and shine.
A track star who tore off a 10.4 in the 100, handling the faster
receivers won't be a problem. Once he gets a little bit of
experience, he should grow into a major player and the team's
number one corner, as well as potentially a top kickoff returner.
Emerging on the other side will be 5-9, 180-pound senior
Antonio Gaines, who made seven tackles and broke up a pass
as a reserve. A top prospect a few years ago, the former running
back has yet to make much of an impact and will have to battle
to hold on to a job.
Projected Top Reserves: Forget about the depth
chart; things are going to quickly change this fall when several
newcomers get a shot to play. JUCO transfer DeAngelo
Willingham will find a spot somewhere after two big yards at
College of the Desert in California. A speedy corner with
tremendous athleticism, he'll push Gaines hard for a spot.
Fighting for the starting strong safety job will be JUCO
transfer Nevin McKenzie, a 6-2, 210-pound big hitter who
can rush the passer and move like a corner. One of the best
athletes in the secondary with speed and phenomenal leaping
ability, he might be too promising to keep off the field.
On the way to become the team's new star corner is true freshman
Eric Berry, considered by many to be among the nation's
best recruits with next-level speed and athleticism, and the
smarts to possibly grow into a quarterback-of-the-defense
secondary. It's asking a lot for him to be the main man right
away, but the expectations are sky high.
Watch Out For ... the secondary to be better than
many will make it out to be. There's always a huge concern when
you have to come up with three new starters, but Hefney is a
star to build around, and Gaines and Johnson should grow into
decent corners with a little bit of time.
Strength: Athleticism. All across the board, the Vol
secondary is loaded with players with next-level measurables.
The backups can all move with many likely able to step in and
handle most receivers by being faster. Almost no one will be
able to run by this group.
Weakness: Overall inexperience. This would've been a
great secondary if Demetrice Morely could've figured out where
the classrooms were and if rising corner Roshaun Fellows didn't
get booted off the team.
It helps to have a free safety like Jonathan Hefney to patrol
the field and clean up everything against the run while giving
the new corners some help. Antonio Gaines and Marsalous Johnson
are promising corners, but they'll have to battle to hang on to
their jobs with a slew of good newcomers on the way. Will this
be a physical enough secondary? That remains to be seen.
Projected Starters: Death, taxes, and a Colquitt
punting the ball for Tennessee. 6-3, 205-pound junior Britton
Colquitt might be the best of the family after averaging
44.9 yards per boot and putting 18 inside the 20. He has a great
leg who can hang it high and consistently pin teams deep. While
he'll start out as the team's placekicker, trying to replace
James Wilhoit, who hit 18 of 22 field goals. The hope will be
for redshirt freshman Daniel Lincoln to ease Colquitt's
burden, but he hasn't quite stepped up when given the chance.
Watch Out For ... Colquitt to be one of the team's
top weapons. For a defense that'll need time to jell, and an
offense that might not be consistent to start out, having a
punter who can blast the ball 60 yards if needed.
Strength: Colquitt and Jonathan Hefney. Hefney might not
be an All-America punt returner, but he's not far off after
averaging 12.1 yards per try. Colquitt will get several all-star
Weakness: Kickoff returns. The Vols have had a bizarre
block when it comes to kickoff returns over the last few years,
and bottomed out last season averaging 16.05 yards per try, good
for last in the SEC and 117th in the nation. Top running back
Arian Foster will try to add more pop.
It's a Jekyll-and-Hyde situation. The punting and punt return
game will be among the best in America, while the placekicking
will be an issue and the kickoff returns can't be a big-time
weakness again. With Britton Colquitt double dipping his kicking
duties, he can't let his punting suffer. Jonathan Hefney is
special returning punts, but he doesn't return kickoffs.