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2008 Tennessee Preview - Defense
Tennessee S Eric Berry
Tennessee S Eric Berry
Posted May 20, 2008 2008 Preview - Tennessee Volunteer Defense

Tennessee Volunteers

Preview 2008 - Defense

- 2008 CFN Tennessee Preview | 2008 Tennessee Offense
- 2008 Tennessee Defense | 2008 Tennessee Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN Tennessee Preview | 2006 CFN Tennessee Preview 

What you need to know: There's an interesting mix of superstars, pedestrian talents, and overhyped prep prospects who never lived up to their billing. While all top teams have that, it's more pronounced on the Tennessee defense that'll boast the phenomenal safety tandem of Eric Berry and Demitrice Morley and a fantastic outside linebacker in Rico McCoy, but could be woefully lacking at the other linebacker positions and is strangely mediocre on the line. Tackles Dan Williams and Demonte Bolden are fine, but the defense desperately needs to generate more of a pass rush after struggling to get into the backfield last year. Defensive coordinator John Chavis might have to find ways to manufacture pressure from different places. The secondary should be able to handle the stress, but it would be nice if the ends could get to the quarterback on their own.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Rico McCoy, 106
Sacks: Robert Ayers, 4
Interceptions: Eric Berry, 5

Star of the defense: Sophomore SS Eric Berry
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior DE Wes Brown
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore CB/KR Dennis Rogan
Best pro prospect: Berry
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Berry, 2) LB Rico McCoy, 3) FS Demitrice Morley
Strength of the defense: Secondary, tackles
Weakness of the defense:
Pass rush, linebacker depth

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: The defensive ends have to be more productive, and that'll start with senior Robert Ayers. The 6-3, 270-pound veteran made 34 tackles and led the team with four sacks and 12 tackles for loss, but he needs to do more to help the woeful pass rush. An interesting pro prospect with excellent speed to go along with his size, he ramped up his intensity level this spring showing he's ready to take over for Antonio Reynolds, who was fine, but nothing special.

Taking over on the left side for Demonte Bolden will be 6-4, 256-pound junior Wes Brown, a solid reserve who made 23 tackles and a tackle for loss. While he's not quite as big as the typical Tennessee end, he's a top talent who has yet to live up to his prep hype. He's hardly a lock to hold on to the starting job all season long; he'll have to keep pushing to keep the gig and he has to prove he can get into the backfield on a regular basis.

6-6, 290-pound senior Demonte Bolden is a tall, talented tackle who made 26 tackles, two sacks and five tackles for loss starting 12 games on the left side. While he's been a bit underwhelming over the course of his career and hasn't come close to living up to his potential, he has the skills and the experience to do more on the inside. He's consistent, if not always spectacular, and can serve as an anchor.

Junior Dan Williams made his signature play in the win over Kentucky with a blocked field goal, and the 6-3, 310-pounder is a promising inside presence who could be on the verge of being a star. The 6-3, 310-pounder was seventh on the team in tackles making 51 stops with two sacks and seven tackles for loss. He turned into one of the team's better pass rushers as one of the few consistent threats last year when it came to generating pressure.  

Projected Top Reserves: 6-3, 275-pound senior Walter Fisher needs to come up with a big season behind Demonte Bolden at left tackle. As the only backup tackle with appreciable experience, the former JUCO transfer came up with 27 tackles as a good reserve. He's good enough to potentially start here and there, but he's not Bolden.

Wes Brown is hardly a lock to hold down the left end job with promising Chris Walker waiting in the wings. The 6-3, 230-pound sophomore might be undersized, but he can move. The former linebacker isn't going to be an every down end in this defense, but he could become a specialist who brings more heat than Brown.

Also a bit smallish, but quick, is 6-3, 240-pound sophomore Ben Martin, a little used pass rusher who made seven tackles in a reserve role. He looks the part with a body out of central casting, and he'll push for time as an athletic option behind Robert Ayers on the right side.

Watch Out For ... Martin and Walker. Ayers and Brown are fine, but nothing special, and the line must find a way to generate more pressure into the backfield. If nothing else, the two sophomores should see more time in pure pass rushing situations.
Tackle. While the Tennessee interior has been much-maligned for not being nasty enough last year, Williams is a good one who should become a star. Bolden might never be the elite player he was destined to become, but he's good enough. Fisher is a player who'll do what's needed.

Pass rush. 11th in the SEC in tackles for loss and 25 sacks in 14 games ... this is Tennessee? If the ends can't get it done again this year, the linebackers will have to be sent more on a variety of blitzes.
Look at it this way; the Vols won the SEC East, beat Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl, and finished with ten wins even though the line was mediocre at best. This year's front four isn't going to be bad, but it's not the killer Tennessee defensive line of the past. The tackles should be solid against the run and all four spots will be solid, but there needs to be more spectacular plays and more from the ends. Robert Ayers and Wes Brown have to become big-time.
Rating: 7


Projected Starters: All senior Ellix Wilson has to do is replace 149 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and the heart-and-soul play of Jerod Mayo in the middle. The 5-10, 225-pound Wilson might be woefully undersized for a top-flight SEC middle linebacker, but he was decent when he got on the field making 30 tackles, three sacks and five tackles for loss. He's a 100 mile-per-hour player who can flash into the backfield at any time and has the range to make plays all over the place. He's not going to be Mayo, but he could be a breakout performer.  He's the brother of former UT star receiver, Cedrick Wilson.

The star of the defensive front seven is 6-1, 215-pound junior Rico McCoy, a tremendous all-around playmaker who finished second on the team with 106 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss with five broken up passes. Overshadowed by Mayo last year, he was able to do a little bit of everything on the weakside and often cleaned up plenty of messes. He's huge hitter with tremendous speed and toughness. Even though he's an All-America caliber linebacker, he'll be a strong safety at the next level.

With Ryan Karl gone on the strongside, former JUCO transfer Nevin McKenzie will get the look after making 35 tackles and 2.5 sacks as a reserve. The 6-2, 215-pounder plays much bigger than his safety size with the ability to hit like a ton of bricks and get into the backfield on a regular basis. He'll have competition for the job, especially after getting hurt in spring ball, but he appears to be the best option.

Projected Top Reserves: In the hunt for the job on the strongside is 6-2, 215-pound senior Adam Myers-White, who was neck-and-neck with Nevin McKenzie throughout spring ball. A superstar high school recruit, he has yet to play up to his press clippings and made just 15 tackles as a reserve. More of a safety than a true linebacker, he'll see more time in the rotation this year and will get a chance again to make an impact on special teams.

Seeing time in the middle will be special teams superstar Nick Reveiz, a 5-10, 225-pound sophomore walk-on who made 15 tackles last season and should be ready for a bigger defensive role. He's a limited talent who gets by on want-to. While he won't be bad for stretches, there will be reason to panic if Ennix Wilson is hurt for an extended period of time.

Watch Out For ... McCoy to be every bit the player Mayo was. They play different positions and do different things, but now the spotlight will be on McCoy as he'll need to help out all the other prospects. He needs to be an All-American monster or the linebacking corps could be a disaster.
History. For all the concern over the potential problems, Tennessee always seems to generate production from whatever configuration of linebackers gets thrown on the field. Defensive coordinator John Chavis is great at getting his linebackers in positions where they can make plays.

Everyone other than McCoy. The linebacking corps would've been devastating if Jerod Mayo had stuck around for his senior year. Wilson won't be bad in his place, but he's not going to be an NFL star. It'll be a rebuilding process if injuries hit at any time.
This could be the team's Achilles heel. The defensive line isn't good enough to not have a killer threesome behind it, and while Rico McCoy will be special, there are screaming panic sirens going off around the rest of the corps. Several young players like LaMarcus Thompson, Chris Donald, Josh Hawkins and Savion Frazier are the future, and they could quickly become the present if there are problems early on.
Rating: 7

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: If sophomore Eric Berry isn't the best strong safety in America, he's in the team photo. The superstar recruit of last year was supposed to come in and be a key backup corner, and then he took over a safety job early in the season and never looked back finishing fourth on the team with 86 tackles and a team-leading five interceptions with nine broken up passes and two fumble recoveries. The question will be where to put him. He'll make his millions at the next level at free safety, he's a tad smallish at 5-11 and 195 pounds at strong safety, but he's such a good hitter and such a fantastic playmaker when he gets the ball in his hands that the goal will be to put him in whatever spot gets him around the ball the most.

Berry will likely spend the season at strong safety again while 6-2, 195-pound junior Demetrice Morley will play free safety after missing all of last year because of academic issues. A star in 2006 making 51 tackles and seven tackles for loss with two interceptions, he has the size, the range, and the talent to step in for Jonathan Hefney and not miss a beat.

The cornerback battles will go on into the fall, but sophomore Dennis Rogan appears to have one spot on the left side. The 5-10, 185-pounder stepped up this spring when he got the opportunity and showed he could be a starter for the next three seasons. He made a few big plays, including a nice pick for a long score in a scrimmage, and showed that he can be a top playmaker on the right side. He made 19 tackles as a reserve and will at least see more action in the rotation this year.

JUCO transfer DeAngelo Willingham is a big 6-0, 200-pound hitter who stood out after a good end to 2007. A starter at right corner over the second half of last year, he'll get the first look at the left corner job after finishing with 38 tackles and three broken up passes with two fumble recoveries. He showed he could be a playmaker in spring ball and took over one of the staring jobs. He'll also be a backup safety behind Eric Berry.

Projected Top Reserves: Sophomore Brent Vinson, a former wide receiver, is a rising star corner who made 37 tackles and an interception with eight broken up passes, but he was out this spring hurt and might have lost his starting job on the left side. Maybe. He'll get a look at both corner spots once he comes back this fall once his banged up shoulder is better. At worst he's a fantastic backup.

Junior Marsalous Johnson will get every opportunity this fall to win one of the corner jobs starting out pushing DeAngelo Willingham on the left side. A track star who tore off a 10.4 in the 100, he's a 5-9, 180-pound flash of lightning who made 25 tackles and a pick with five broken up passes before injuring his knee. When he gets back he needs to prove he has the same set of wheels and same playmaking ability.

Former running back Daryl Vereen could be next year's top safety if he's allowed time to work. At 6-0 and 200 pounds, he's a quick, compact player who's learning how to be a free safety on the fly. He'll get plenty of chances to get his feet wet behind Demetrice Morely and he could grow into an interesting option.

Watch Out For ... the return of the injured corners. Dennis Rogan already appears to be a star, but he'll be pushed a bit once Brent Vinson and Marsalous Johnson are back. The corner depth could go from good to frighteningly good.
Safety. The combination of Eric Berry and Demetrice Morley is being talked about as possibly the best ever in the Phil Fulmer era. Considering Tennessee's history of safeties, these two have a ton of hype surrounding them.

Backup safety. It's not like there aren't options if Berry and/or Morley go down, but there's a huge, 25-mile-wide chasm between those two and the backups. To put it simply, Tennessee must have a big year from its safeties to have any hope of playing for the SEC title.
Outlook: While the offensive line will be good and the running backs and receivers are potentially explosive, the secondary will be the strength of the team. Berry and Morley should be in the NFL right now, while the corners will be terrific once all the pieces are back and healthy. With the rest of the defense merely average, the secondary has to play up to its capability after allowing a whopping 239 yards per game
Rating: 8.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Sophomore Daniel Lincoln had a great first season hitting 21 of 29 field goals with two of the misses coming from beyond 50 yards. He hit a whopping seven of ten from 40-to-49 yards and he connected on 52 of 53 extra points. Basically, he was a godsend as his emergence allowed Britton Colquitt to spend his season just dealing with the punting duties.

Just when it seemed like Colquitt was about to become a star, he got nailed for an incident with alcohol and will miss the first five games of the year. He averaged a solid 41.6 yards per kick putting a whopping 23 inside the 20 and forcing 15 fair catches. Until he returns, the Vols will tread water with sophomore Chad Cunningham, who average 40.7 yards per kick forcing three fail catches on his three boots last year.

Speedy corner Dennis Rogan will handle the return duties after averaging a stunning 29.5 yards per kickoff return and a decent 9.7 yards per punt return. He'll get help from running back Lennon Creer on the kickoff returns.

Watch Out For ... the punting game to be just fine. Cunningham isn't some guy dragged off the street and that Georgia game, when Colquitt will be eligible again, will come around in a hurry.
Lincoln. While he could be a bit more automatic, there's not a lot to complain about considering field goals were supposed to be the big weakness last year. He'll be the difference in at least two games.
Coverage teams. The Vols were fine covering kickoffs allowing 20.6 yards per return but were awful on punt returns allowing 10.3 yards per try with two touchdowns.
If Dennis Rogan is the all-around returner he was last year and Daniel Lincoln can build on his solid freshman year and hit around 20 field goals again, all will be fine. The punting game will be good no matter who's kicking it. 
Rating: 8