Because of the blink-and-you-might-miss-it style and amount of points scored, Tennessee’s offense usually gets most of the attention. But it could be Tennessee’s defense that determines the true potential of the team during the 2022 season.
The numbers might not always look good because of the amount of time the defense is on the field, but the Vols need to make key stops and force turnovers for a chance to win.
During the early part of fall training camp, the focus has been on building depth and performing better on third down.
Due to the frenetic pace of games, Tennessee’s defenders often wore down in the fourth quarter last season. The Vols allowed some big plays that could have turned a few losses into wins.
Entering the second season under Josh Heupel’s coaching staff, the defense has adjusted more to how the offense operates. The defensive players know they won’t spend much time on the sideline with the Vols accumulating points so quickly.
“With the way we play and score, we have to have several linebackers ready to play,” says linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary. “Especially with the wear and tear that you get in this conference, the more quality linebackers that you have, the better chance you have of being better on defense.”
UT finished the 2021 season ranked 99th in the country in total defense. The Vols allowed 421.7 yards per game and recovered only three fumbles. They ranked 106 in the nation – and last in the SEC – in opponent third-down percentage (43.72).
“We got to be better in third-and-long situations, which you’re playing where you want to defensively when you’re in that position,” Heupel says. “We got to get better in the red zone too, forcing field goals and creating negatives there, not giving up seven points.
“Part of that is being able to affect the quarterback not just with pressures but with a four-man rush. We got to have some competition on the defensive line. I think we’ve certainly gained in the depth that we have inside of our program.”
Given the circumstances surrounding Heupel’s arrival last season, the Vols were playing short-handed. The program was under investigation for recruiting improprieties from the previous staff and opened fall camp with just 60 scholarship players.
“We were the thinnest football team in America, hands down, not even close. You look across America, many were playing with 90 to 95 because of COVID seniors,” Heupel says. “We’re deeper than we were. We’re not as deep as we need to be. We’ll still be under 85. But I think the depth, the competition, the year inside of our system, inside strength and conditioning, the ability to strain, finish, focus at the end of football games should allow us to take a step defensively for sure.”
Sixth-year senior linebacker Solon Page III can already tell the difference between last year’s training camp and this year. He’s excited to have a fresher group of players rotating in the middle of the defense.
“Having that extra depth in the linebacker room is very crucial, especially because we want to be one of the hardest hitting and hardest playing linebacker corps in the country,” Page says. “Having that depth, having guys that can rotate in and out and not have a drop-off, that’s huge for a defense.”
The same sentiment holds for the defensive line.
“Saying I’m pleased would be an understatement,” UT junior defensive lineman Tyler Baron says. “I’m excited about how much depth we have and how many guys we’ll be able to rotate in this year, keeping everybody fresh. When we come out, I don’t think there will be any drop-off.”
Being more familiar with the scheme has boosted the comfort level among Tennessee’s defensive units and is allowing them to play more on instinct this year. The newcomers have added a competitive edge that makes practices more lively.
“I think guys that played a lot of significant snaps coming from last year will have great confidence coming in, but we have some young guys that are itching to prove what they can do,” says defensive coordinator Tim Banks. “So I think it’s an exciting time for us on defense and UT in general.”
As happy as they are seeing the offense perform well, the UT defensive players take pride in keeping opposing teams from scoring. They realize pitching a shutout may not be realistic in this day and age of modern football, but they don’t want to be completely overshadowed. They want to play an integral role in helping the Vols win more this season.
“Just going off last year, a lot of the games, we were into the game and we were like one or two plays away. So, we just want to look back on that and move forward,” says redshirt senior defensive lineman LaTrell Bumphus. “We are not thinking about last year, but you want to correct the mistakes so you don’t make the same mistakes and win the close games where we lost them.”