KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – At midseason last year, Tennessee’s defense took a directional turn. It went South.
A unit that played well for three quarters against Virginia Tech and shut down Florida in the second half turned into a sieve.
Three of the last five SEC opponents rushed for at least 400 yards, and 11 opposing backs rushed for 100 yards. Missouri racked up a school-record 740 total yards. Vanderbilt’s Kyle Shurmur, an average quarterback at best, turned into Tom Brady, passing for 416 yards.
Tennessee ranked 104th in the nation against the run (218.5 per game) and allowed a whopping 5.1 yards per carry during the regular season. The Vols surrendered 2,841 rushing yards and 28 rushing TDs; both were the most in school history.
Injuries, poor tackling, missed assignments, misalignments, and lack of physicality led to the defensive downfall.
To turn the defense around, the Vols must find a way to stop the run.
“The one thing is, we got to be a better run defense,” new defensive line coach Brady Hoke said. “That’s a big part of what we do drill-wise and what we do every day.”
It’s also a project that might have to wait until August. This spring, the Vols have only two fully healthy lettermen at end and two fully healthy lettermen at tackle. No offense to ends Darrell Taylor and Jonathan Kongbo, and tackles Quay Picou and Paul Bain, a walk-on, but that defensive line wouldn’t fare well against Georgia Tech’s triple-option, the spread of Missouri or the power running of Alabama or LSU.
Hoke sees benefits to last season’s backups getting more individual instruction.
“They may not think it because they get a lot of reps,” Hoke said, “but I think it’s a great situation for them and a good situation as a coach coming in and working with some relatively new guys who have not played much and trying to get the best out of them.”
Tennessee will need good health from tackles Shy Tuttle, Kahlil McKenzie and Kendal Vickers if it wants to do battle with the better rush offenses it faces this year. Each memeber of that trio is either out or limited with injuries this spring.
Perhaps UT will get a boost from junior tackle Alexis Johnson, who redshirted last season after transferring from junior college despite UT’s dire need for decent tackles. If Johnson couldn’t even get on the field last season, it makes you question how much he will help this season.
“He’s making progress every day,” Hoke said of Johnson. “Some of it is, he has to get in football shape.”
Kongbo has slimmed down from about 285 to 265 and moved back to end from tackle, a position he reluctantly played last season.
“Maturity,” Hoke said, when asked where Kongbo has made the most strides. “It’s always hard for junior college guys getting thrown into the mix a long way from home.”
Tennessee will miss Derek Barnett, who was Tennessee’s career sacks leader and a solid run-stopper.
“We had one really good pass rusher a year ago,” Hoke said. “We have to keep developing ways or see where we evolve as a unit. But we have to stop the run. We have to be physical up front.”
When healthy, UT’s defensive line has a chance.
When not healthy, it could be a mess.
(You can follow Jimmy Hyams on Twitter @JimmyHyams)
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