Things are looking up for Tennessee's defense.
Long-lost Janzen Jackson is back in Knoxville, and some of his teammates are being eyed for top defensive honors. It is a markedly better situation than what they faced last season with a host of raw, inexperienced recruits filling the majority of the defensive roster.
The days of overlooking the Vols are coming to a close—just take a look at their defensive depth chart.
- Austin Johnson: 6'2", 235 lbs. (senior)
- John Propst: 6'0", 225 lbs. (sophomore)
A fullback no more, Austin Johnson will fill in for Herman Lathers while he recovers from surgery.
Some see this as a negative, but Johnson is no slouch.
Pound for pound, he is probably the strongest player on this defense. He benches in excess of 375 lbs. and squats more than 500 lbs.
Combined with his ability to read the run, he is a natural at the position.
Propst came out in the spring game and demonstrated he was healthy by making quick direction changes. His lateral movements during the game should have erased any doubts that he wasn't ready to play.
After the Vols play the their second game against the Bearcats, Derek Dooley may change his mind about hurrying Lathers to come back.
- Greg King: 6'0", 220 lbs. (junior)
- Curt Maggitt: 6'3", 200 lbs. (freshman)
Again, with Lathers out, Greg King will need to be healthy to keep this written in stone.
King could actually find himself benched with the arrival of three brand new LBs though.
There is Maggitt, of course, then Christian Harris (6'2", 235 lbs.) and A.J. Johnson (6'3", 245 lbs.). Justin Wilcox loves big LBs, and with King being a little more than suspect, it could change the dynamics of the LB depth chart.
If King starts limping, it will be two true freshman filling at least one side for the LBs.
- Daryl Vereen: 5'11", 215 lbs. (senior)
- Raiques Crump: 6'2", 220 lbs. (sophomore)
The chances of Vereen starting are about 51 percent in his favor.
As an outsider, I like Crump because he is a natural leader, and would help keep the younger players motivated and on assignment.
But the job is Vereen's to lose, which he might, considering the arrival of the new LBs I mentioned on the previous slide.
Crump is a tad bit slower, and for the moment, speed kills. The offenses the Vols will be facing will necessitate having the fastest players at most key positions.
Vereen may start, but I expect frequent rotation to get Crump acclimated to the job.
- Daniel Hood: 6'5", 300 lbs. (sophomore)
- Maurice Couch: 6'4", 330 lbs. (sophomore)
With the loss of Montori Hughes, you should see Couch slip past Joseph Ayres to take over the No. 2 spot behind Hood.
The JUCO transfer couldn't have come at a better time. The DL depth was already shallow, but with Couch, it at least makes the position ankle-deep.
The good news is Hood is very close to being game-ready, and there are rumors he is already stronger than Malik Jackson. You can listen to Hood here as he discusses strength/conditioning coach Ron McKeefery, D-line coach Lance Thompson and how he has transitioned from the OL.
- Malik Jackson: 6'5", 285 lbs. (senior)
- Corey Miller: 6'3", 260 lbs. (sophomore)
Malik Jackson has been named on the watch list for two of college football's most prestigious awards given to a defensive player.
The first is the Bronko Nagurski for the best defensive player at any position (there are 85 names on the list), and the other is the Outland trophy, given to linemen on both sides of the ball.
Jackson is one of 16 defensive players out of a list of 65. He should finish the season as an All-American.
Corey Miller saw limited play last season and will most likely play the role of fourth-quarter wrap up. He is improving and looked very crisp in the spring game.
- Jacques Smith: 6'2", 245 lbs. (sophomore)
- Stephen Fowlkes: 6'5", 250 lbs. (junior)
Smith broke a metatarsal in his right foot that required surgery, but medical trainer Jason McVeigh says he will be ready to practice by the end of June. Smith is an extremely gifted athlete, but when you aren't moving around at full speed you lose something.
Still his chances of starting are about 65 percent.
Fowlkes is much improved and saw limited play last season. With the arrival of freshmen Trevarris Saulsberry (6'5", 280 lbs.) and Jordan Williams (6'5", 250 lbs.), it could mean a shift in depth.
If Smith can't prove a healthy foot, you will probably see Williams move into the the No. 2 spot, as veteran Martaze Jackson would most likely stay on special teams.
- Willie Bohannon: 6'2", 250 lbs. (junior)
- Marlon Walls: 6'4", 280 lbs. (sophomore)
Willie Bohannon might very well be the smallest DE in the SEC, but Derek Dooley is fine with it, because according to him, he knows what leverage is.
Bohannon exhibited the best of wok ethics all spring and continues to demonstrate why he is starting.
In his own right, Marlon Walls is talented enough to start, but just isn't quite as good as Bohannon at shrugging off the block. Still, I expect frequent rotations to build Walls' confidence should Bohannon decide to opt out his senior year.
Walls will need to improve so his No. 2 spot isn't breached by a hungry Jordan Williams.
- Marsalis Teague: 5'10", 180 lbs. (junior)
- Eric Gordon: 5'9", 185 lbs. (sophomore)
Maybe it's because Teague was a receiver before assuming his role as DB that makes him so savvy.
When he patrols the passing lanes, he owns his real estate, and there is no question he will start.
Eric Gordon is coming along nicely; in the spring game he impressed DC Justin Wilcox by smothering Chaney's spread option. Gordon has good reach and could see an increased margin in interceptions.
The only chance I see in this changing is if Pat Martin or Izauea Lanier make a run at his position. They are both fast and came off extensive play-sets in high school.
- Janzen Jackson: 6'0", 190 lbs. (junior)
- Anthony Anderson: 5'11", 185 lbs. (senior)
Yes, Jackson is better suited as a safety, and he may end up there.
But, it makes more sense to put him in the weakest position. Anderson is a decent player, and he was mildly productive last season.
However, if you must pin down a position to improve, it would be this one. All the safeties are doing well and need to stay where they are, but Janzen Jackson is not a second-stringer.
Monte Kiffin did the same thing with Eric Berry to shut down the opposing run, and he knew he was fast enough to read and drop back for dual coverage. Jackson probably won't get the same number of interceptions, but he will be there for the guys who out-run Austin Johnson.
JJ! JJ! JJ! JJ! JJ!
- Brent Brewer: 6'2", 210 lbs. (sophomore)
- Dontavius Sapp: 6'2", 215 lbs. (sophomore)
Brent Brewer is probably one of the most improved DBs on the roster. He's a much more physical player than what we witnessed last season, and he has learned to use the subtle head-to-shoulder strike Eric Berry perfected.
Brewer may even be better at hitting, but he's got a lot of example slots that will need filling. As it is, he has regained some of that defensive polish FSU so highly coveted from him. He was the standout performer at the spring game.
Sapp gave us a sneak peak of what the Vols can expect during the Orange and White game, but I was a little disappointed with his overall performance. It could be explained that only a handful of Vols actually took the spring game seriously in the first place, but I was not impressed with his one solo tackle. Sapp should be careful that freshman Pat Martin doesn't knock him off the hill.
- Prentiss Waggner: 6'2", 180 lbs. (junior)
- Rodriguez Wilks: 6'0", 215 lbs. (junior)
Nominated for the Lott Impact award and the Bronko Nagurski watch list, Waggner is, at this moment, the best player on the defensive roster.
Janzen Jackson would be had he not been removed from field work, strength and conditioning for so long.
Be that as it may, Waggner is a superb safety and should break or get close to a few defensive records this season.
Wilks is really unproven at this position, and I'm frankly a little puzzled that he sits behind such a prestigious player. I would look for a freshman to challenge for the No. 2 slot just based on the level of incoming talent.