Better or worse? Previewing Tennessee's defense in 2019
Editor’s note: This is the 6th in a series previewing every SEC East defense. Coming Sunday: Vanderbilt.
Jeremy Pruitt surely had plenty of concerns with Tennessee’s roster when he took over the Vols. The defensive line had to top the list.
Pruitt inherited a defensive front that didn’t have any proven playmakers or depth. For a lifelong defensive coach, that was a nightmare scenario. Slowly, UT’s defensive front seems to be waking up. That should help the Vols’ entire defense. No, UT isn’t suddenly a defensive juggernaut, but there are signs that the Vols will be significantly better in 2019 than they were last season.
Pressuring the quarterback: Better
Tennessee ranked 11th in the SEC last season with 25.0 sacks (which actually was 3 more than 2017). Clearly the Vols need to be much better than that. Pruitt, however, had a perplexing challenge last season. He could create pressure by blitzing, but that would just create a tougher task for a young secondary. Moreover, it’s not as if the Vols had any special pass-rushing linebacker destined to end up with a sack even if Pruitt had decided to blitz more. There was simply no answer to a bad situation all around. One that, honestly, has existed for quite some time before and after Derek Barnett.
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The Vols should have more answers this season. It’s important to note that the Vols lost three starters and a key second-team contributor on the defensive line from last season. However, it’s also worth noting that they weren’t exactly All-SEC caliber. The Vols will be younger and more inexperienced up front this season, but they should be more talented – at least that’s what Pruitt is banking on.
Emmit Gooden appears to have the type of ability to anchor the defensive front at nose guard. If he can take up a pair of blockers on most plays, that would allow Pruitt to be more creative with stunts and blitzes. At defensive end, the Vols signed junior college standout Savion Williams. The 4-star prospect will be expected to make an impact this season. John Mincey and Kurott Garland appear to have significant upside.
At linebacker, Darrell Taylor could be the most important player on UT’s team. He has the athletic ability to pressure the passer, fill running lanes and play in space when asked to drop into pass coverage. Daniel Bituli is a proven commodity at linebacker. The senior should continue to evolve as an impact player.
Although just a freshman, Quavaris Crouch has drawn rave reviews as a leader and a playmaker. He’ll surely make mistakes but his athleticism should allow him to get to the passer with regularity if that’s the role he’s placed in.
So will the Vols be better when it comes to rushing the passer? Yes. Or at least probably. With so many unknowns, it’s hard to be certain, but this defensive front is more in line of what Pruitt wants. That should give UT fans hope.
Run defense: Better
Despite the losses on the line, UT also should be better in run defense after finishing 9th in the SEC last year (155 yards per game allowed). The Vols will have fully adjusted to Pruitt’s 3-4 scheme by this season. That should help immensely.
Gooden will be key in run defense. He has to be able to hold his ground. He doesn’t have to lead the Vols in tackles for a loss, but he has to at least fight to a draw against the interior of the line of scrimmage. If he can do that, then other players will be free to make plays.
The Vols will be without Darrin Kirkland, Jr., who retired from football due to injuries. When healthy, Kirkland was a great playmaker. Incoming freshman Henry To’oto’o will be one of the most interesting players to watch in preseason camp.
It’s tough to determine just how good the Vols will be at defensive end when it comes to stopping the run. That could be the one area where inexperience hurts the Vols if there are assignment busts. UT’s linebackers should be very adept at stopping the run considering their athleticism. The Vols gave up 200+ yards rushing in 5 of their 8 SEC games, but also held Kentucky to just 77. They should improve on the former this season.
Passing defense: Better
The Vols ranked 8th in the SEC in pass defense last season. That’s not bad, but they should be significantly better this season.
The Vols return their top three cornerbacks from 2018 and have a strong starting duo in Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson. They could develop into one of the better cornerback duos in the SEC. Baylen Buchanan is expected to be UT’s starting nickelback.
Trevon Flowers and Nigel Warrior are expected to be the starters at safety. However, Jaylen McCollough will garner some playing time — if not a starting position.
Special teams: Better
The Vols will be better in kick and punt coverage for two simple reasons. First, they’re more athletic. Second, they’re better conditioned. That should eliminate all concerns in UT’s coverage units unless something is fundamentally flawed schematically.
One area to improve is on kickoff distance. The Vols produced touchbacks on just 44% of their kickoffs last year. They didn’t allow an TD returns, but they provided a lot of opportunities.
The Vols ranked 9th in total defense in the SEC last season. That was somewhat respectable considering UT’s talent shortcomings and having personnel that didn’t fit Pruitt’s 3-4 scheme.
The bigger problem was that they finished 12th in scoring defense, allowing 27.9 points per game.
However, the Vols will be better than that this season. It’s reasonable to expect UT to finish close to the top 5 in total defense in 2019, and shaving even 5 points off its average would help an offense that also will be better but averaged only 22.8 points per game last season.