Can Monte Kiffin and the Tennessee Defense Top Last Year's Strong Performance?

Michael ShibleySenior Analyst IApril 24, 2009

Tennessee’s offensive struggles last year overshadowed the fact that the Volunteer defense finished third in the country in total defense in 2008.

While longtime defensive coordinator John Chavis is one, Tennesee brought in one of the only men who could make the defense even better: Monte Kiffin, a longtime NFL defensive coordinator, creator of the "Tampa 2" defense, and father of Vols head coach Lane Kiffin.

The strength of the Tennessee defense will again be its secondary, led by junior All-American defensive back Eric Berry.  Berry led the nation with seven interceptions. last year, running two back for touchdowns. He complied an astounding 265 return yards from those picks.

Berry’s not alone back there. Junior DB Brent Vinson continued to improve in his sophomore season, while incoming recruits StePhaun Raines, another DB, and Dennis Rogan, a free safety, have both looked great in spring practices.

The group that will get the biggest overhaul for 2009 will be the defensive line.  Under Chavis, the D-Line focused on containment (then again, when you have had big plugs like John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth to clog up running lanes, you can get away with that).  

Under Kiffin, the defensive line will be more aggressive, since the linebackers will be used more in coverage.  

These linemen are up to the challenge.  Sophomore Chris Walker has made a splash at defensive end.  He’s little smaller than most ends in the SEC, but he’s also very explosive off the line, in the mold of Indianapolis Colts pass-rusher Dwight Freeney.

The rest of the line consists of sophomore Ben Martin at the other end, with seniors Dan Williams and Wes Brown at the tackle positions.  

Depth may still be an issue, but newcomer Montori Hughes will help in that department. The 6-foot-4, 312 pound true freshman tackle from Murfreesboro, Tenn. has been the surprise of the spring, and could be in the starting lineup come fall.

The linebackers have the most room to improve. It’ll take more than spring practice to get the hang of a new scheme that demands more pass coverage. The team hopes that once fall camp rolls around, the LBs will have a greater grasp of the Tampa 2.

Senior Rico McCoy will lead the group in the transition. He’ll need the younger linebackers to step up behind him.  Watch for Jerod Askew, a freshman LB from Chesapeake, Va. to make an impact when he enrolls in the fall.

The defense’s focus this spring should be on forcing more turnovers. Despite Tennessee’s lofty defensive rank last year, the Vols ranked No. 117 in fumbles recovered.

Imagine the impact if the rest of the defense followed Berry’s ball-hawking lead.

In Tennessee's seven losses in 2008, opponents had 13 scoring drives of 65 yards on longer. A few more turnovers would go a long way toward killing those long drives.

While it may take some time for the offense to turn things around, look for the Tennessee defense to be one of the best in the nation again.