It’s been an up and down season for Tennessee thus far. The Vols are 3-4 (0-3 SEC) and face No. 4 Alabama on Saturday, their third matchup against a top-5 opponent this season. While the team is still in the early stages of its rebuilding process under second-year head coach Butch Jones, its defense is well ahead of schedule.

Tennessee’s defense ranks No. 19 overall in total defense, No. 8 in opposing third down conversion percentage and No. 29 in scoring defense. The Vols are also  No. 16 in points per possession, ranking first in the SEC East.

While A.J. Johnson’s SEC leading 78 tackles comes as little surprise, the emergence of several other key contributors was less obvious entering the season. Jalen Reeves-Maybin has provided the perfect compliment to Johnson. Reeves-Maybin has 58 total tackles, ranking No. 4 in the SEC. The sophomore was the Vols’ best player on special teams last season, recording a team-best 11 tackles before taking on a full-time role at outside linebacker this offseason.

Tennessee returned zero starters on its defensive line before naming Derek Barnett the first true freshman to open the season as the starting defensive end. Barnett leads Tennessee in sacks (3.0) and tackles for loss (9.5). The former Brentwood Academy standout recorded his first career game with double-figure tackles in Saturday’s loss to Ole Miss.

The Vols also rank No. 20 in passes intercepted. Cameron Sutton leads Tennessee with three interceptions, while taking on the task of defending opposing team’s No. 1 wide receivers. Sutton managed to hold Ole Miss’ Laquon Treadwell to 43 yards on four catches. Sutton’s emergence comes as less of a surprise as a reigning Freshman All-American who has started at cornerback in every game since enrolling at Tennessee. However, his progression this season has placed him among the top defensive backs in the conference.

Tennessee’s defense has flown under the radar due to the team’s lack of success on offense this season. While the offense fails to see production, the defensive unit sees more time on the field and allows a deceptive amount of points to opposing teams. The Vols defense has done its job thus far this season and is ahead of schedule in the team’s rebuilding process.