2009 Tennessee Preview - Defense
Tennessee DT Dan Williams
Tennessee DT Dan Williams
Posted May 6, 2009

CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Tennessee Volunteer Defense

Tennessee Volunteers

Preview 2009 - Defense

- 2009 CFN Tennessee Preview | 2009 Tennessee Offense
- 2009 Tennessee Defense | 2009 Tennessee Depth Chart
- 2008 CFN UT Preview | 2007 CFN UT Preview | 2006 CFN UT Preview 

What you need to know: Tennessee finished third in the nation in total defense, was fourth against the pass, 12th against the run, and 10th in scoring D. In other words, the defense wasn’t the problem. In comes the new coaching staff, and while coordinator Monte Kiffin is considered one of the most brilliant defensive minds in the history of football, and while Ed Orgeron might be the best defensive line coach in the game, it’ll be asking a lot to repeat the production of last season. The Tampa 2, or Cover 2, relies on big-time speed and athleticism in the secondary, and Tennessee has that to spare led by safety Eric Berry, one of the best players in college football. The linebacking corps needs work, but Rico McCoy is a first round-caliber draft pick who’ll clean up a lot of messes. And then there’s the line, which was great last year and should be dominant under Orgeron. With end Wes Brown moving inside, at least in certain formations, there’s more speed and athleticism on the ends. Expect more of a pass rush and a better push into the backfield, even with Robert Ayers now on the Denver Broncos, with Ben Martin and Chris Walker about to explode.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Rico McCoy, 87
Sacks: Chris Walker, 3
Interceptions: Eric Berry, 7

Star of the defense: Junior SS Eric Berry
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior LB Nick Reveiz and/or redshirt freshman LB Herman Lathers
Unsung star on the rise: Junior DE Chris Walker
Best pro prospect: Berry
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Berry, 2) LB Rico McCoy, 3) DT Dan Williams
Strength of the defense: Secondary, Tackle
Weakness of the defense: Linebacker Depth, Backup Ends

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: The line should be tremendous, but there’s one big question: who’s going to take over for Robert Ayers? The first round draft pick of the Denver Broncos was a terror in the backfield last year, even though he only came up with three sacks, and now it’ll be up to junior Chris Walker to take over on the right side. The 6-3, 232-pound junior is a former linebacker with a great first step and a burst into the backfield making three sacks and four tackles for loss, along with 15 tackles, in his backup role. He might be a bit of a specialist, but he’s a playmaker who’s always working and always hustling.

With Wes Brown moving inside, 6-3, 239-pound junior Ben Martin will take over the job at left end after making 18 tackles and a sack. While he’s not all that big, the former linebacker can move and is a pure speed rusher who could come up with a huge statistical season with all the attention paid to everyone else on the line. He looks like he’s right out of central casting as far as a prototype hybrid 3-4 outside pass rusher, but he’ll put his hand on the ground.

The experience is on the inside, led by 6-4, 257-pound senior Wes Brown, a strong left end last season who’ll move to tackle where he should be way too quick for any interior offensive lineman. Active against the run, he made 37 tackles with 2.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. He’ll need to be a part of a rotation against the power running teams because of his lack of bulk, but he might move inside and out just to keep him on the field. While Brown has improved, and has been fine, he hasn’t lived up to his impressive prep hype.

6-3, 327-pound senior Dan Williams is a bit too big, but he’s getting in better shape and he should be a monster on the inside. He came up with a nice season with 48 tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss, showing surprising quickness and burst for a player of his size. While he’s not going to crank out too many sacks, he’ll eat up everything that comes his way against the run and will work his way into the backfield now and again to make plays. Ultra-consistent, he doesn’t miss stops and holds up well against double teams on the nose.

Projected Top Reserves: If it’s not Brown at tackle, there’s a chance for true freshman Montori Hughes to shine right away. At 6-4 and 312 pounds, the star recruit is a big, athletic inside presence who’ll get into the backfield now and then and should be a key part of the rotation right away. If nothing else, he’ll come in on pure running downs to clog things up.

Looking to see time on the outside are two redshirt freshmen, Willie Bohannon on the left side and Steven Fowlkes on the right. The 6-2, 230-pound Bohannon is a speed rusher who ran track in high school and has good closing skills, while the 6-4, 229-pound Fowlkes has spent the last year beefing up after playing both wide receiver and defensive end in high school. Fowlkes has tremendous athleticism and could be used as an outside linebacker, while Bohannon should be a pure end throughout his career.

Watch Out For ... lots of movement on the inside. Wes Brown is too good not to have on the line at all times, and he’ll be moved around where needed to keep him on the field. He’ll rotate in several spots to generate the most production possible.
Ed Orgeron. There might not be a better defensive line coach in America. All the success Ole Miss has had up front over the last few years, with Peria Jerry going in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft and Greg Hardy almost certain to be a first rounder next year, Orgeron deserves credit for helping to make that happen. He was also the architect of some tremendous USC lines before taking the Ole Miss head job. Getting him was a coup for Lane Kiffin.
Backup experience. The starting four will be fantastic, but past them are a slew of very promising, and very green freshmen and redshirt freshmen who need at least a year of developing.
Outlook: Don’t blame the line for any of the team’s problems last year. It stuffed everyone’s running game and did a decent job of getting into the backfield. Now the defense has Ed Orgeron working on the front four with excellent pass rushing potential at all four spots. There will be far more sacks this season with Ben Martin and Chris Walker about to explode on the outside, while Dan Williams is a rock in the middle. Wes Brown will start out on the inside, but will move where needed. Overall, this should be a team-strength, made better by Orgeron. However, there will be big problems if injuries hit early on.
Rating: 8


Projected Starters: It’s salary drive time for Rico McCoy. The 6-1, 220-pound senior will be a top draft pick next year, he could’ve gone early this season, with tremendous range, big-time hitting ability, and steady production. He ate up everything that came his way against the run, and chased down everything that didn’t funnel to him finishing second on the team with 87 tackles with a sack and 3.5 tackles for loss. While he’s not all that big, he has unlimited range and is excellent in pass coverage. He’ll be an all-star on the weakside and on the short list for All-America honors.

While he’s only 6-1 and 213 pounds, redshirt freshman Herman Lathers is a big-time prospect with the quickness to get all over the field and decent potential as a pass rusher. While he’ll have to be in a rotation in the middle to replace Ellix Wilson, he has the athleticism and the upside to be given a long early look.

Junior LaMarcus Thompson has been a key special teamer so far, making ten tackles, and now he’ll get a look on the strongside. At 6-1 and 221 pounds he’s more lanky than big, but he’s been around long enough to know what he’s doing and he’s extremely fast. If nothing else, he could be used as a pass rusher.

Projected Top Reserves: Part of the equation in the middle is Nick Reveiz, but he’ll have to battle for the job. The 5-10, 220-pounder isn’t the most talented option, but he has decent experience making 18 stops. Mostly a special teamer so far, he’ll have to show something special to be considered for more than a backup role. While he won't be bad for stretches, the former walk-on is a limited talent who gets by on want-to.

Trying to find a spot somewhere, considering he won’t see too much time on the weakside behind Rico McCoy, will be Savion Frazier, a 6-2, 221-pound junior who has been a star on special teams. He made 18 stops last year and saw plenty of action on defense, and with his speed and athleticism, he’ll get a long look in the middle.

Watch Out For ... a lot of shifting around. The Vols don’t have an answer yet for two of the starting spots, and they don’t have a sure-thing stand out who appears ready to take over and dominate the position. There’s McCoy and a bunch of regular guys.
McCoy. Tennessee always gets production at linebacker no matter who’s playing, but it’s McCoy who’s the star of the show. He’ll clean up all the messes and make up for the problems and concerns at the other two spots.
Everyone other than McCoy. The Reveiz brothers, Nick and Shane, aren’t big-time SEC players and they can’t be starting for long stretches of time. If Lathers and Thompson aren’t great, there will be a big drop in production.
Outlook: It’s going to take a little bit of work and a little bit of time, but the Vols should be decent here … eventually. There’s a fierce competition in the middle and the strongside to go along with Rico McCoy, and while there will always be production and athleticism from anyone who lines up for the Vols, it’ll be asking a lot to come up with a middle linebacker who made plays like Jerod Mayo two years ago and Ellix Wilson last year. There are several good options with a several job open for the taking going into the fall.
Rating: 7

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: USC’s Taylor Mays is probably the best defensive player in America and could be the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft. Junior Eric Berry could be No. 2 in both categories, and he’s not necessarily going to concede either one. The 5-11, 203-pounder has done everything for the defense as a last line of defense making 86 tackles two years ago and finishing third on the team with 72 stops last season. A pass rusher, he also made three sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. But for all the big hits and all he does as the sheriff of the secondary, he’s at his best when the ball is in the air tying for the nation’s lead with seven interceptions with 13 broken up passes. Deadly when he gets the ball in his hands, he holds the SEC record for a season with 265 interception return yards. A pure playmaker at strong safety, he should do even more to help out this year in the Tampa 2 system.

With star free safety Demetric Morley being booted from the program, it’s an open casting call for the job. 5-10, 179-pound sophomore Stephaun Raines has elite speed, clocking a 10.5 100-meter dash in high school, but he has to translate his wheels to the football field. He didn’t do anything last year and will be a key part of the rotation if he can’t pull out the starting job. He’s too fast and has too great a range to not be a regular.

6-1, 173-pound sophomore Art Evans will lock down one of the starting corner spot, likely on the right side. He has good size and good quickness, but he’s a bit green having seen time in ten games last year without making a tackle. He’ll be given a lot of room to work a lot of chances to take the job and make it his own after a strong spring.

Junior Dennis Rogan will likely rotate around where needed, but he’ll find a starting job somewhere. Able to play free safety or corner, he has the experience and the playmaking ability to be a difference maker when teams are staying away from Eric Berry. Even though he’s 5-10 and 178 pounds, he provides a decent pop making 53 tackles and an interception with five broken up passes. Quick enough to be used on punt returns, he can stay with any receiver in the SEC physically. Now he has to be more consistent.

Projected Top Reserves: Junior Brent Vinson, a former wide receiver, is getting a lot of work at corner and could end up starting if Dennis Rogan sees more time at safety. At 6-0 and 201 pounds, he has good size to go along with his excellent speed. Never healthy throughout last year, he only finished with 13 tackles and an interception with two broken up passes. His skill set is too good to not get him on the field more if he can stay healthy.

Pushing for work at corner will be Marsalous Johnson, a 5-9, 184-pound senior who only made 11 tackles with three broken up passes, but it was too fast to not have a bigger role. He’s a flash of lightning who has no problems staying with anyone in the SEC, but he needs more work on his technique and he needs to be better when the ball is in the air.   

Neck-and-neck with Stephaun Raines in the battle for the starting free safety job is Prentiss Waggner, a 6-2, 177-pound redshirt freshman who might be a big thin, but has enough range to cover the whole stadium. A Louisiana state champion-caliber sprinter in high school, he got away from LSU and now should grow into a big-time producer once he gets his feet wet.

Watch Out For ... a lot of movement around in the lineup. A LOT. Eric Berry will start at one of the safety spots, and that’s about it for the sure things on the depth chart.
Speed. Every SEC team has speed in the secondary, from Berry, who has been clocked at under 4.4, to the backups, this is a track team that can also cover. Range isn’t a problem for this group.
Finding the right combination. Tennessee had the nation’s No. 4 ranked pass defense and was 11th in pass efficiency D. Now the new coaching staff is tinkering with the formula. There’s almost no way the production will be better than last year.
Outlook: This might be the team’s biggest strength with speed, options, and a whole bunch up upside to work around Eric Berry, who might be the best player in college football. The key will be to find the right combination at safety to work the Tampa Cover 2 formation, which relies on zones and a whole bunch of speed. Considering this might be the fastest secondary in college football, or at least in the top ten, there’s a chance this could be a brick wall against the mediocre SEC passing teams.
Rating: 8.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Junior Daniel Lincoln was a fantastic freshman, hitting 21-of-29 field goals, but he was inconsistent last season hitting just 10-of-18. He has a nice leg, but he doesn’t have any accuracy from beyond 45 yards. He’s solid enough to not be a worry.

Britton Colquitt is gone, so it’ll be up to junior Chad Cunningham to take over and fill in the 43.4-yard average. Cunningham stepped in when Colquitt was suspended early on and averaged 39.5 yards per kick putting 11 inside the 20, but he doesn’t have the same big leg.

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 was excellent on kickoff returns averaging 24.9 yards per return doing a consistently strong job. He wasn’t as good on punt returns averaging 4.8 yards per try. WR Gerald Jones was better averaging 10 yards per try.

Watch Out For ... Lincoln to be solid. Call it a sophomore slump, but Lincoln struggled with his consistency last season. That should change now that he has two years of experience. He has a good midrange leg. Now he has to be able to use it more.
Rogan. A fantastic kickoff returner, he’s better on punt returns than he showed last season. Jones is more than fine whenever he gets a chance. There’s too much speed and quickness to not be even better.
Punt coverage. This has been a problem over the last few years allowing 10.3 yards per try two years ago and 12.6 yards per attempt last season. It was more than just the Florida game; the coverage team struggled.
Outlook: Almost all the key parts are back in place, and Chad Cunningham has enough experience to be a solid punter, even though he won’t be spectacular. The return game will be fine with former Auburn special teams coach Eddie Gran leading the way. His teams led the SEC in kickoff coverage and punting several times. 
Rating: 7