In 2021, most of the attention surrounding Tennessee’s football team focused on the offense. And that makes complete sense. Josh Heupel’s fast-paced system is entertaining to watch and was statistically one of the top offenses in the nation.

The defense was, well, the rest of the story. With the offense getting on and off the field so quickly, the defense was extended, playing an average of 36 minutes per game, tops in the country. The defense was on the field for 1,010 plays last season. Only 3 defenses (Western Kentucky, Michigan State, Kent State) faced more snaps.

Tennessee defensive coordinator Tim Banks was lauded for the job he did with that group, and rightfully so. The Vols were gutted by the transfer portal, but Banks got the most out of those guys who remained. The Vols allowed 29.1 points per game, which, all things considered, wasn’t an embarrassment.

Looking now to 2022, with another year under Banks upcoming, will the Vols be better or worse defensively? Let’s break it down …

Pressuring the QB: Better

The defense was above average a year ago when it came to rushing the passer. They finished the season ranked 43rd nationally in sacks, averaging 2.62 per game.

The Vols will miss Matthew Butler, whom the Raiders drafted in the 5th round. He was 2nd on the Vols in sacks last year (5) and quarterback hurries (7). Ja’Qauin Blakely (1.5 sacks) also is gone.

The good news is that UT returns a lot of talent well equipped to pick up the slack. Edge rusher Byron Young was one of the top JUCO recruits in the country in 2021 and proved himself worthy of the hype. He tied for the team lead in sacks (5.5) and tackles for loss (11.5). He was also credited with a team-best 8 QB hurries. Young is poised to have another big season, which likely will be his last in Knoxville.

The guy that Young tied with in sacks and tackles for loss also returns. James Banks does a little bit of everything and there’s no reason to 2022 will be any different.

The news gets better with junior Tyler Baron ready to build on his 4 sacks from 2021. A local product from Knoxville Catholic High School, Baron is 2nd only to Young as an effective edge rusher for this team.

Senior Roman Harrison and junior Omari Thomas have shown the ability to get at the quarterback as well. They played in every game a year ago.

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Tennessee online sports betting officially launched on November 1, 2020, and many of the largest sportsbooks are live and operating in the volunteer state. Tennessee is only one of a handful of SEC football states with legalized sports betting.

This all leads me to believe that the Vols will be even better than last year when it comes to pressuring opposing quarterbacks.

Run defense: Better

When I ask my 12-year-old daughter how her day went, quite often she says “mid.”

As a 49-year-old man with a mortgage and a pension, I wouldn’t use that term in normal conversation. But it sort of applies to Tennessee’s run defense.

They finished last season ranked 59th, allowing 148.5 rushing yards per contest. Not awful. Not great. Just … mid.

These guys we talked about above are also key to stopping the run. LaTrell Bumphus, a 6th-year senior, could be in line for more playing time. Bumphus, who came to Tennessee as a tight end, has played in 9 games the past 2 season due to injury. If he can stay healthy, it could be a bonus.

Aaron Beasley was 2nd in tackles with 84. That included 7.5 tackles for loss. His growth is crucial to UT’s ability to stop the run. Da’Jon Terry and Elijah Simmons also could make an impact.

I think Tennessee will be slightly better in this category.

Pass defense: Better

The secondary was much maligned in 2021. They allowed 273.2 passing yards per game, which put them in 122nd position nationally.

They struggled that mightily despite having 2 eventual NFL Draft picks: cornerback Alontae Taylor (2nd round, New Orleans) and Theo Jackson (6th round, Tennessee Titans). They’re obviously gone this season, and we’ve already seen what that might mean.

In the Music City Bowl, Tennessee gave up 534 passing yards and 5 passing TDs. Taylor was getting ready for the Draft and didn’t play.

Jaylen McCollough had a team-high 3 interceptions a year ago to go with 5 pass breakups and should be penciled in to start at strong safety. Trevon Flowers picked off 2 passes and had 3 pass breakups. He was also 3rd in tackles and likely will start at free safety.

Even without Taylor and Jackson, I’ll say that the Vols will be better in pass defense … because it would be hard for them to be worse.

Special teams: Better

Tennessee’s Paxton Brooks was one of the best punters in the conference a year ago, averaging 44 yards per attempt, with 18 of his 45 punts leading inside the 20. Thanks in part of Brooks’ hang time, the Vols ranked 5th nationally in punt return defense, allowing only 2 yards per attempt.

In terms of kickoffs, 35 of Toby Wilson’s 81 attempts went for touchbacks. Tennessee was average in terms of kick return defense, allowing 21.15 yards per attempt.

With Brooks and Wilson both back in 2022, I don’t see Tennessee taking much of a downslide here.

Overall: Better

Tennessee finished the 2021 season ranked 99th in total defense. They allowed 421.7 yards per game and 48 touchdowns. In terms of turnovers, the Vols only recovered 3 fumbles, tied for 118th.

There is a lot of room for improvement.

Under Heupel’s system, Tennessee won’t win the time of possession battle very often. Everyone that plays for the Vols understands that.

But despite that reality, the Vols’ defense will be better in 2022.

MORE VOLS: Will the offense be better or worse in 2022?