Preview 2009 - Defense
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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.
Tackles: Rico McCoy, 87
Sacks: Chris Walker, 3
Interceptions: Eric Berry, 7
Star of the defense:
Player who has to step up and
become a star: Junior LB Nick Reveiz and/or
redshirt freshman LB Herman Lathers
star on the rise: Junior DE Chris Walker
Best pro prospect: Berry
all-star candidates: 1) Berry, 2) LB Rico
McCoy, 3) DT Dan Williams
Strength of the
defense: Secondary, Tackle
the defense: Linebacker Depth, Backup Ends
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
Strength: 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.
Weakness: 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.
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.
Strength: 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.
Weakness: 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.
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