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Questions abound as Vols defense readies for first season under Jeremy Pruitt

Jeremy Pruitt

In 2017, the Tennessee defense, once again decimated by injury, had trouble stopping opponents. It ranked 81st out of 129 FBS teams in total defense, giving up an average of just under 413 yards per game.

In the SEC, that is recipe for disaster, and it was, as the Vols finished last in the Eastern Division.
What can we expect from Tennessee in 2018?

Let’s start with the alignment change. New Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt and defensive coordinator Kevin Sherrer are moving the Vols from a 4-3 (four down lineman and three linebackers) to a 3-4. This forces some players to switch positions, moves that could prove beneficial for the unit, and a few individuals.

On the defensive line, the Vols know that they simply didn’t get enough from that group in 2017, as Tennessee ranked last in rushing defense last season. Kahlil McKenzie left early for the NFL, and reliable Kendal Vickers (108 career tackles) has graduated. A healthy Shy Tuttle could help a great deal. He is back for his senior season, playing in only 23 games during his college career. Tuttle collected 27 tackles last season. Also back on the line is senior Kyle Phillips. He had 35 tackles in 2017 and was named the most improved defensive player following spring practice.

Someone to look out for on that defensive line would be sophomore Deandre Johnson. At 6-4, 300 pounds, Johnson might be best suited for that nose tackle position in the 3-4. Johnson saw limited action in 2017, collecting four tackles while playing in six games.

With the alignment switch comes a need for more linebackers. The Vols do have some depth at that position, especially with the return of Darin Kirkland Junior. The Indianapolis native announced that he was going to transfer, but Pruitt convinced him to stick around. When healthy, he has the potential to be one of the best linebackers in the SEC, but has only played in eight games the past two seasons, missing all of 2017 due to injury.

Daniel Bituli is back for his junior season after a stellar sophomore campaign in which he led the Vols with 90 tackles. Quart’e Sapp returns for his redshirt junior year after finishing fourth on the Vols in tackles last season with 78.

Two players that are switching to linebacker include Jonathan Kongbo and Darrell Taylor. Kongbo has not lived up to expectations since arriving as the top JUCO prospect in the country in 2016. Moving to linebacker will give the Vols more flexibility and could reveal his talents to a greater degree. Taylor should benefit with the move to linebacker as well and will put his athleticism on display in a big way.

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