The past two seasons have been the worst for the defense in the Chavis era at UT. Defensive coordinator John Chavis took the reins in 1995 and has historically produced very stout units.
However, Tennessee has been uncharacteristically very anemic against the run the past two years, giving up an average of 164 yards on the ground last year and 147 before that.
If Tennessee wants to improve upon just winning the East division for the first time since the national title season of 1998, there must be improvement against the run.
Last season’s sack leader, Robert Ayers, returns at end. Unfortunately, he only had four sacks. For now, junior Wes Brown (6'4", 256) will be lining up alongside Ayers, but Vols fans should not be surprised to see sophomore Ben Martin (6'3", 240) pass either one on the depth chart.
The Cincinnati native was a five-star prospect coming out of high school and continues to impress coaches. If Martin reaches his potential this season, he could give a very large boost to the defensive line.
At tackle, both starters return. However, J.T. Mapu, who played heavily last season, is lost to graduation. Fourth-year junior Dan Williams (6'3", 310) and senior Demonte Bolden (6'6", 290) return as starters. Coaches hope Williams, the top returning tackler along the line, can continue to build on his breakout season of last year, after losing over 40 pounds since arriving at UT.
As for Bolden, he has always had the talent to exceed in the SEC, but not quite the mentality. Bolden was suspended for the Louisiana-Lafayette game for violation of team rules and missed the Outback Bowl for academic reasons.
If Williams and Bolden continue to improve, they should form a solid run-stopping tandem. However, they must stay healthy, because behind them there isn’t much on the depth chart. Walter Fisher is the only returning letterman at the position.
By far the strength of the defense last year, this unit must replace two starters, including the tenth overall NFL draft pick Jerod Mayo. On the bright side, crowd favorite and second team All-SEC weak side linebacker Rico McCoy (6'1", 215) returns.
Sliding into the middle is senior Ellix Wilson (5'10", 225). Wilson, a long time special teams monster, finally gets his chance to start. Wilson has also demonstrated good leadership qualities, calling a team meeting at his house after a string of players got in trouble. Along with other seniors, he mandated a team-wide 11 o'clock curfew.
At strong side, spring practice ended in a dead heat between two seniors, Nevin McKenzie and Adam Meyers-White. I expect the duo to continue to split time, at least in the beginning of the season.
Since strong side has traditionally been the captain and play caller for the defense, I expect three-time academic All-SEC Meyers-White (6'1", 215) to get the start and have McKenzie (6'1", 215), a converted safety and possibly the best natural athlete in the unit, come in during passing situations.
John Chavis thinks this could be the most athletic secondary he has ever coached, and certainly the best unit since the ’98 team. Eric Berry (5'11", 195) returns to lead what will be the strength of the defense this year.
At corner, four players return that have starting experience. The very athletic sophomore Brent Vinson (6'0", 190) will most likely hold on to his starting position and be bracketed by junior Marsalous Johnson (5'9", 180), who is returning from a shoulder injury. Sixth-year senior Antonio Gaines (5'9", 185), who is returning from a torn ACL, will push him for the starting job, as well as take care of nickel coverage duties.
Senior DeAngelo Willingham (6'0", 200), who made eight starts last season, split the award for most improved defensive player during spring ball and could overtake Johnson or Gaines. Sophomore return specialist Dennis Rogan (5'10", 185) provides even more depth at the position.
At safety, former starter and five-star high school prospect Demetrice Morley (6'3", 195) returns after a yearlong absence from the university. Morley pairs up with sophomore sensation Eric Berry to form what could possibly be the very best safety tandem in the country.
The word out of spring camp is that Morley has not missed a beat and established himself as one of the leaders of the 2008 defense, even giving the unit the collective nickname of “The Goon Squad," saying that they are a bunch of goonies on the field and comparing the unit to piranhas in how quickly they can all break on the ball and make a play.
With such a abundance of talent in the secondary, look for Chavis to blitz often this season to make up for the lack of push from the line. With a security blanket like Berry and Morley, any coordinator should be more prone to take risks.
Check back next week for my predictions of Tennessee's season.