2007 Tennessee Preview - Defense

Posted Jul 30, 2007

Preview 2007 Tennessee Volunteer Defense

Tennessee Volunteers

Preview 2007 - Defense

- 2007 Tennessee Preview | 2007 UT Offense Preview
2007 UT Depth Chart | 2006 CFN Tennessee Preview 

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.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Jonathan Hefney, 96
Sacks: 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 J.T. Mapu
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, linebackers
Weakness of the defense:
Living up to the potential, defensive tackles

Defensive Line

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 right side.

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 produce.
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.

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 Tarzans.
Rating: 7


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 Wilson.

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.
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 problem.

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 their health.
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.
Rating: 8.5

Defensive Backs

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.
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.

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.
Rating: 7

Special Teams

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.
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 honors.
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.
Rating: 7


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2007 Tennessee Preview - Depth Chart
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2007 Tennessee Preview
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