Tennessee must address historically bad defense
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Where does Tennessee go from here?
The Vols suffered their second loss to in-state foe Vanderbilt in the Butch Jones-era Saturday night in Nashville.
It was the first time since 1926 that Vanderbilt defeated an eight-win Tennessee team, raising questions about the direction of the program under fourth-year head coach Jones. The loss to Vanderbilt was also the first time that a Tennessee head coach had lost multiple games to the Commodores since MB Banks (1921-25).
Jones came to Tennessee in 2013 when the program was unstable after Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley left it in the previous four years. Jones has put Tennessee back on a relevant national footing but hasn’t yet pushed it over-the-top.
After losses like Saturday night to Vanderbilt and weeks before at South Carolina, the program is getting blasted by the national media. Fans are left to wonder if there is a positive end in sight.
Turning things around will have to start with fixing the defense. It’s a unit in need of immediate action.
“I will start when we get home tonight,” Jones said after the loss to Vanderbilt. “I will see what we need to do to get better. I love our players. They are giving everything that they have.”
The unexpected losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt have been accompanied by offbeat quotes from Jones at press conferences, most recently proclaiming his team “Champions of Life,” a line that drew mockery from some sports writers and social media commentators.
Jones mostly has steered the program in the right direction, but nonetheless will face questions and scrutiny going into his fifth season next year.
What direction will he go in to better the program and repair the defensive unit that was a strong suit a season ago under former defensive coordinator John Jancek? Injuries have decimated the depth of the unit in coordinator Bob Shoop’s first season, but the unit has given up yards at a level never seen before in the history of Tennessee football.
The Vols have given up 1,983 yards in the last three weeks against Kentucky (635), Missouri (740) and Vanderbilt (608). Vanderbilt’s 608 total yards is its most in the 110 years of the in-state rivalry.
The defense ended the regular season having given up 5,522 total yards (2,713 passing and 2,809 rushing) in 12 games. Shoop’s unit gave up 400 or more yards in seven games (Virginia Tech, Florida, Texas A&M, Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt). The Vols also gave up 30 or more points in half of the games.
“I never want to use injuries as an excuse because football is a game of adversity,” Jones said . “It’s the next man in. When you’re down three defensive tackles and your best linebacker … it’s another opportunity for other individuals to step up. We gave up over 600 yards of offense and 42 points. That is unacceptable at Tennessee.”
Derek Barnett, who tied the great Reggie White for the Vols’ career sacks lead with his 32nd against Vandy, acknowledged the defensive problems after Saturday’s loss.
“It’s unacceptable,” Barnett said. “It’s a tough loss. Right now we’ve just got to come together and get ready for our bowl game. But this is unacceptable and I’m embarrassed.”
Defensive lineman Kendal Vickers echoed Barnett’s take, saying “it’s embarrassing and we’ve got to do something to fix it.”
Vickers sat beside Barnett post-game and let the words resonate inside Vanderbilt Stadium, framing the problem that Jones will wrestle with come the off-season — a critical off-season indeed for Jones and the program.