Editor’s note: This is the 6th in a series previewing every SEC East team’s defense. Next: Vanderbilt.

Early in the 2019 season, the Tennessee defense was a mess. The Vols gave up 38 points in a stunning opening Saturday loss to Georgia State, followed by a double-overtime loss to BYU in which they allowed a 64-yard pass in the final seconds of regulation. Blowout losses against Georgia and Florida made you think they’d never figure things out.

But in the second half of the season, the defense turned the page. Yes, the schedule got easier, but the Vols allowed an average of only 15.5 points per game in their final 6 contests. Not coincidentally, Tennessee won all 6. A memorable goal-line stand helped the Vols knock off Kentucky. If the Vols can get those type of performances this season, it could mean big things in 2020.

Will they?

Let’s take an early look at what Vols fans should expect from the defense come September.

Key losses: LB Daniel Bituli, LB/DE Darrell Taylor, S Nigel Warrior

Key returnees: DL Darel Middleton, DL Aubrey Solomon, DL Matthew Butler, DL Greg Emerson, DL LaTrell Bumphus, LB Henry To’o To’o. LB Quavaris Crouch, LB J.J. Peterson, DL/OLB Kivon Bennett, DL/OLB Deandre Johnson, DB Bryce Thompson, DB Alontae Taylor, DB Shawn Shamburger, DB Theo Jackson, DB Jaylen McCollough, DB Trevon Flowers

Key newcomers: LB Bryson Eason, LB Tyler Baron, LB Martavius French, DL Omari Thomas

Pressuring QB: Worse

Tennessee registered 34 sacks in 2019, 3rd in the SEC and their most since 2014, when Derek Barnett and Co. totaled 35.

In 2020, the Vols will sorely miss Darrell Taylor, who led the team with 8.5 sacks in 2019. Nickelback Shawn Shamburger is the top returning sack collector with 3.

There will be pressure on senior defensive lineman Matthew Butler to improve on his 2.5 sacks from a year ago. Senior Kivon Bennett is a candidate to get to the quarterback more often. He had 2 sacks last season from outside linebacker. Junior LaTrell Bumphus also had 2 sacks last season.

Finding someone to replace the heat Taylor brought is one of the biggest objectives/concerns on defense.

Run Defense: Better

Tennessee’s defense was dealt a major blow during camp in 2019 when Emmit Gooden tore his ACL. Gooden was supposed to be a major run stopper, and it took awhile for the Vols to figure out what to do in his absence. The results were mixed. Tennessee allowed just 3.70 yards per carry, which was 4th-best in the SEC. That’s outstanding, considering teams averaged more rushes per game against the Vols than every other SEC team not named Arkansas or Vanderbilt.

But they gave up 17 rushing TDs — which was 6 more than Georgia (2) and Florida (9) combined. South Carolina (9) and Missouri (12) also allowed fewer rushing TDs.

Unfortunately, Gooden is gone for good now, but seniors Darel Middleton and Aubrey Solomon return. Obviously they won’t be on the field for every snap, but having a couple of experienced players at the front of the 3-4 is a major plus.

Butler could end up starting on the defensive line. True freshman Omari Thomas might get a lot of playing time as well.

Linebacker support will be there in spades, even with the graduation of Daniel Bituli, who led the Vols in tackles the past 3 seasons. This group is led by rising sophomore standout Henry To’o To’o, who had 72 tackles as a freshman. Quavaris Crouch, known by most Vols fans as their short-yardage running back, had 28 tackles last season and could play outside or inside linebacker. Newcomer Bryson Eason might be the best of the trio of incoming linebackers from Whitehaven High School in Memphis.

Pass Defense: Better

The Vols said goodbye to Nigel Warrior, and he won’t be the easiest player to replace. Warrior showed great improvement during his senior season, collecting 60 tackles (3rd on the team) while leading Tennessee with 4 interceptions from his safety position.

The good news is that Jaylen McCollough, Trevon Flowers and Theo Jackson are ready to slot into the two safety positions. Jackson was 4th on the Vols with 53 tackles in 2019, but lost playing time to McCollough late in the season. Flowers missed the second half of the season with a broken leg but looks healthy and ready to go.

Bryce Thompson (3 INTs) has one cornerback spot locked down. Alontae Taylor struggled some last year but has the inside track to the other cornerback spot.

The loss of Warrior is substantial, but there is enough depth to make the secondary solid.

Special Teams: Same

Tennessee’s punting situation is … good? Joe Doyle handled some of those duties in 2019 but entered the transfer portal. It looks like the job is Paxton Brooks’s to win, after he punted 30 times, averaging 42 yards per attempt last year. The Vols added a grad transfer in UConn’s Brett Graham, but he didn’t punt in 2019. Instead, he was the Huskies’ holder on kicks. And you know what they say, if you have a chance to bring in a UConn holder, you have to do it.

Overall: Better

It’s obvious but critical: This defense needs to start the season stronger than it did in 2019. That’s no “hot take,” just facts.

It won’t be easy, either. Not with a Week 2 trip to Oklahoma, which is starting over at QB but has been a top-5 offense under Lincoln Riley. How well the Vols handle the Sooners will go a long way in providing clues about where they stack up in the SEC East.

The good news is, the 2020 Vols defense is deeper and more experienced than last year’s group. They look even more like what Pruitt wants. They might be a tough matchup for a bunch of SEC offenses this season.