Tennessee Volunteers Football 2012: A Look at the Vols Defense

Kevin KingSenior Analyst IIAugust 6, 2012

Tennessee Volunteers Football 2012: A Look at the Vols Defense

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    Getting to the top in the SEC is about playing great defense. There is no way around that. Look at Arkansas last year; the Razorbacks scored points by the boatload—until they played the top defenses. (They lost to Bama 38-14 and LSU 41-17.)

    I should stop here and note that Arkansas did win 11 games last year. The Hogs, defense while not the best, played well.

    The Tennessee coaching staff is hard at work improving all three levels of a defense that ranked No. 28 nationally in 2011.

    But in the SEC, that fell well short of winning regularly.

    It's safe to say that the offense often failed in giving a helping hand, as well.

    Three times in 2011, the Vols defense held SEC east opponents under 21 points (Georgia, South Carolina and Kentucky). More offense in any of those games might have a brought victory. 

    Still, the job of the defense is to keep the other guy's score lower than yours—thus, three close opportunities went the other way.

    On the surface you could say the defensive performance was adequate in 2011. But a closer look at the numbers reveals a defense that gave up almost twice the yardage and nearly three times the points per game as the top unit in the conference in 2011.

    That is not good enough.

    I'm not saying that UT fans should expect numbers that match those of defending national champion Alabama this year. But to be a contender in the SEC East, the defense must improve over last year, regardless of the improved offense.

    Follow me for an update on where the Volunteer's defense is at the start of fall practice.

The Line

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    Though UT is switching from four to three down lineman this season, four down lineman will still be seen often.

    When running a three-man front, the idea is to have a big, strong nose tackle who will eat up space and blockers, always plugging the middle and often requiring two offensive players to engage him.

    Same applies for the ends, except they don't need to be as heavy. They do need to be very hard to block with one person, though.

    A 3-4 defensive front is all about the down linemen eating up blockers—and space—while the linebackers make tackles. Obviously, the linemen will make tackles and sacks, but not to the same degree that they would with a four-man line.

    The projected starter at nose tackle, junior Maurice Couch, is a little light for that position in a 3-4. Typically, the starter would weigh over 325, but Couch is listed at 295 pounds.

    Still, Couch is a real player, so there is little doubt that he can do the job as a starter. 

    Juniors Daniel McCullers (6'6", 380 lbs) and Daniel Hood (6'4", 294 lbs) are the guys who will rotate in.

    Tennessee has defensive ends with body types for either three- or four-man fronts. Former Alabama recruit turned JUCO turned Volunteer Darrington Sentimore along with fellow junior Marlon Walls are the bookends and round out the top three line spots.

    Tennessee returns four of the top six linemen from a squad that played well last year. It takes a couple of years to make a lineman great, even if he comes in with lots of talent.

    This year, the Vols have talent, depth and experience.

    This will be UT's best defensive line in years.

Linebackers

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    The linebacker group has gone from a position at which the Vols were short of quality players to one of strength in just a couple of years.

    This year's starting rotation goes from one career start up to 55.

    Senior middle linebacker Herman Lathers returns. He started 12 games and made 75 tackles in 2010. He missed the season last year due to injury. This year he is back and completely healthy.

    The other three projected starters are led by two sophomores, Curt Maggitt and AJ Johnson. Johnson was a first-team freshman All-American last year, and Maggitt was a third-team freshman All-American.

    Rounding out the starters is junior Jaques Smith. Smith was first-team All-SEC as a freshman. He started eight and played in 12 games last year.

    This season UT loses third-team All SEC linebacker Austin Johnson and two-time starter Daryl Vereen. Both will be missed, but this starting group is very solid. Additionally, there are talented younger players pushing for time.

    Overall, Maggitt and Johnson will be bigger, faster and stronger. Plus, they are now full-fledged veterans of the SEC.

    Linebacker is a very solid unit for Tennessee this year.

Defensive Backs

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    I know the picture is older, but it says SEC football in so many ways. I just wanted to share it.

    Defensive back is the most experienced of all three units. Tennessee returns eight players who started last year, and five had eight or more starts.

    Senior Prentiss Waggner, who started 13 games and was a second-team All-SEC player in 2010, is the old-timer of the group. He started all 12 games again last year and had two interceptions. We was productive with 48 tackles and five passes defended as well.

    Sophomore Justin Coleman is projected to start at the other corner.

    Junior Eric Gordon and senior Marsalis Teague will rotate in and likely play lots at the corner position, as well.

    The likely strong-side starter at safety will be junior Brent Brewer, and at free safety, it will likely be sophomore Brian Randolph, a third-team freshman All-American last year.

    With all the starting experience and athleticism, this group will be much improved, as well.

    The individual talent available to new coordinator Sal Sunseri is much deeper and more experienced compared to what it was two years ago. Some think that Coach Sunseri can get the Tennessee defense up to the next level.

    If so, this defensive unit can make serious strides towards reclaiming the lofty confines it once took for granted at Tennessee.