Tennessee's All-Decade Team: Meet the starting defense
Editor’s note: Saturday Down South has selected an all-decade offensive and defensive team for all 14 SEC programs.
Over the past decade, Tennessee has had its struggles. The Vols have finished in the AP Top 25 only twice and have had winning records in four of 10 seasons. Their team defense has generally been middle of the pack during that stretch, though it did rank as high as 16th nationally in 2015, when Tennessee finished 9-4 and won the Outback Bowl. Nonetheless, the Vols have had some pretty good defensive players this decade. Let’s take a look at the best of the best.
Defensive end: Derek Barnett (2014-16)
This is a case where the stats tell the story. Barnett holds the all-time Tennessee sack record with 33, one more than the legendary Reggie White. He’s second at Tennessee in tackles for loss with 52. He racked up numerous awards following his 2016 season, including being named an AP All-American.
Barnett was often a disruptive force and could take over games. Barnett wasn’t the top-rated recruit in what was a very good Class of 2014, but the Brentwood Academy product was the best of the bunch.
Backup: Jacques Smith (2010-13)
Smith arrived in Knoxville a couple of weeks before Lane Kiffin bolted in January 2010. He stuck around and had a very good college career. Smith played in 47 games and made 120 tackles, including 21.5 tackles for loss. He earned coaches’ SEC All-Freshman team honors in 2010.
Defensive end: Darrell Taylor (2016-19)
Taylor has been one of the Vols’ best overall players during the past 2 seasons. As a junior in 2018, he had 8 sacks. As a senior, he has had seven plus 40 tackles, bringing his career total to 112. Taylor took a redshirt in 2015 and has kept getting better each year.
In this year’s win over Mississippi State, Taylor had 2 sacks and a forced fumble. In last year’s upset of Kentucky, he became only the 3rd Vol to record 4 sacks in a single game.
Backup: Corey Miller (2010-13)
One of Kiffin’s recruits who stuck around after he left, Miller played in every game during his freshman year of 2010. Facing Kentucky as a senior, Miller set a Tennessee record with 4.5 sacks in a single game. He had 7 tackles in that game and forced a fumble as well. Overall, he had 16 tackles for loss during his college career.
Defensive tackle: Daniel McCullers (2012-13)
A JUCO transfer, McCullers had 2 very good seasons at Tennessee. He started 19 of 24 games, collecting 72 tackles, including 10 for loss. He was also invited to play in the Senior Bowl.
Best known for his massive 6-foot-8, 260-pound frame, he was surprisingly agile and one of the few bright spots on the 2012 defense, when he played nose guard in the ill-fated Sal Sunseri 3-4 defense.
Backup: Daniel Hood (2011-13)
He switched over from offensive line after his freshman season and played in 35 games at defensive tackle, starting all 12 his senior year. A Knoxville native, Hood 35 tackles during his college career, plus a sack and an interception.
Defensive tackle: Malik Jackson (2010-11)
Jackson arrived at Tennessee in 2010 as a transfer from Southern Cal after USC was hammered with NCAA sanctions. Of course, Kiffin had bolted Tennessee for the Trojans job, so Jackson immediately became a fan favorite. Fans were even happier when they saw him play.
Jackson started 24 of his 25 games at Tennessee. In those 2 seasons, he had 104 tackles, including 22 tackles for loss. He also had 7.5 sacks.
Backup: Shy Tuttle (2015-18)
Hampered by injuries throughout his first 3 years at Tennessee, Tuttle finally put it all together in 2018, starting all 12 games and making 33 tackles. He received the “Trenches Award” at the team’s end-of-year banquet.
Linebacker: Jalen Reeves-Maybin (2013-16)
When healthy, Maybin was often the best player on the field for Tennessee’s defense. He started every game during his sophomore and junior seasons. Against Oklahoma in 2015, he had a career-high 21 tackles. A shoulder injury cost him the second half of his senior season.
During his 41 games in the orange and white, he had 240 tackles, along with 27 tackles for loss and 8 sacks.
Backup: Darrin Kirkland Jr. (2015-18)
Most often lining up at the MIKE linebacker spot, Kirkland was a leader on the Tennessee defense. He started 10 games as a true freshman in 2015 and was named to the SEC All-Freshman team. Kirkland collected 16.5 tackles for loss and 5 sacks at Tennessee. He missed all of the 2017 season with a knee injury, but he returned in 2018 to finish 4th on the team with 51 tackles. Injuries forced him to give up football prior to the 2019 season.
Linebacker: Curt Maggitt (2011-15)
Unfortunately, injuries cost Maggitt much of what could have been an even greater college career. Still, he started 29 games and collected 141 tackles, including 13.5 sacks and 28.5 tackles for loss. He had 11 sacks in his redshirt junior season of 2014.
As a true freshman in 2011, he had 56 tackles, his best season at Tennessee in that category. In 2014, he was named to the AP All-SEC second team.
Backup: Colton Jumper (2015-17)
One of the most maligned players on this list, Jumper was a constant in the Tennessee lineup, playing in all 38 games. Jumper had a career-high 18 tackles in the 2017 season-opening win against Georgia Tech.
Linebacker: A.J. Johnson (2011-14)
Johnson was everywhere for Tennessee’s defense. In 2012, he led the team with 138 tackles. In 2013, he was named All-SEC after collecting 106 tackles. The former 4-star recruit had 18 games with 10 or more tackles during his Tennessee career.
Backup: Daniel Bituli (2016-19)
Bituli led the Vols in tackles as a sophomore and a junior, and he could hold that status again following this, his senior season. He had a career-high 23 tackles in the 2017 opener against Georgia Tech. This season, his 15-tackle performance, along with a blocked punt and touchdown, were big reasons why Tennessee beat South Carolina.
Cornerback: Cameron Sutton (2013-16)
Sutton finished his Tennessee career as the all-time leader in passes defended with 37, which came from 30 pass breakups and 7 interceptions. He was the starter in the opening game of his freshman season and stayed the starter for the next 40 games, a streak that only ended due to injury in the Ohio game in his senior season. In all, he started all 45 games he played in for the Vols.
He was listed as a 3-star prospect out of high school, and he greatly overachieved with 127 career tackles, 13 of those for loss.
Backup: Emmanuel Moseley (2014-17)
Over 4 years, Moseley played in all of Tennessee’s 51 games and had 142 tackles, with 9.5 for loss. He also had 31 pass deflections. His best season came in 2016, when he started 10 games and had 57 tackles.
Cornerback: Justin Coleman (2011-14)
With 157 tackles and 5 interceptions, Coleman was a consistent player in the Tennessee secondary in his career, when he played in all 49 of the Vols’ games. He had a career-high 13 tackles in the 2012 Alabama game. He represented Tennessee in the 2015 East-West Shrine Game.
Backup: Bryce Thompson (2018-)
Thompson is only a sophomore, but he has already shown signs of being one of the really good ones to come out of the Tennessee secondary. Thompson was named to the 2018 SEC All-Freshman team. He tied a Tennessee record with 3 interceptions in a single game earlier this year against UAB.
Safety: Todd Kelly Jr. (2014-18)
A Knoxville native and the son of a Tennessee legend , Kelly faced big expectations when he picked the Vols over Alabama. He was named to the SEC All-Freshman team in 2014, when he made 33 tackles and had 3 interceptions.
He had 174 tackles during his college career. His best game came in 2015, when he picked off future Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield twice and also had 8 tackles against Oklahoma.
Backup: Brian Randolph (2011-15)
He played parts of 5 seasons for the Vols, starting 47 games. He had 310 tackles, including a career-high 14 in the 2014 win at South Carolina. He was an SEC All-Freshman team selection by coaches in 2011.
Safety: Rashaan Gaulden (2014-17)
Okay, I know he’s best remembered for giving Alabama fans a “salute” in 2017, but he could flat-out ball. In 2016 and 2017, he was one of the best players on the team, a hard hitter who made a combined 133 tackles, with 9.5 for loss.
In the 2017 Florida game, he had a career-high 10 tackles plus an interception. He was a key contributor at nickelback.
Backup: Nigel Warrior (2016-19)
The son of Tennessee legend Dale Carter, he has had his ups and downs at Tennessee. But he has come on during the second half of his senior season, picking up a season-high 10 tackles in the South Carolina victory. In his first 46 games, he had 227 tackles and 5 interceptions.