If the answer to this question isn't "Yes", Tyler Bray's arm might fall off.
We've touched on this a little bit in our countdown, but the Justin Wilcox defense remains a mystery to Vol fans. What we saw last year was the best we could do with a sack of potatoes at tackle and not enough quality DBs to play a dime package at any point. The Vols shouldn't have a problem finding six defensive backs to make the field this season, as only Tyler Wolf graduated from last year's secondary (we may not miss his 17 total tackles, but we will miss his awesome name) and Derek Dooley made the DBs a point of emphasis in recruiting. That's putting it mildly, really: the Vols signed seven defensive backs, inlcuding early enrollee Justin Coleman and a pair of juco talents in Byron Moore and Izauea Lanier. Prentiss Waggner and Janzen Jackson may be established talents, and the coaching staff seemed pleased with what they got out of Brent Brewer at the other safety position. But if you're bringing in seven DBs, that's an indictment of the guys who are already on the roster. This means Marsalis Teague, Eric Gordon, Anthony Anderson, and Art Evans better be ready to show how much they've improved as soon as fall camp begins, or they could get swept away by the wave of new talent.
So you've got seven experienced players and seven newcomers at defensive back. One would hope that from fourteen options, six average-or-better names would present themselves. The guys coming back have seen plenty of action, it's what they've done in that action that causes such concern.
The answer is after the jump, but take a guess at how many pass plays of 25+ yards the Vol defense allowed last season?
For comparison, Monte Kiffin's defense gave up only 11 in 2009 - that number led the nation (tied with Iowa). The year before the Vols allowed 12, fourth best in the nation, with a tip of the cap to Eric Berry for both seasons. The young, ragtag 2007 secondary that got torched by California, Florida, and Alabama gave up 24 (in 14 games), 69th nationally.
But last year?
Last year the Vols gave up 29 pass plays of 25+ yards, 98th in the nation. Eric Berry is great (and it would've been nice if Dennis Rogan stayed around...or Darren Myles didn't get kicked off the team), but there's no excuse to go from the best in the country at something to 98th out of 120 in one year.
The Vols were a middle of the pack defense in surrendering big play runs: 16 rushes of 20+ yards were allowed, 59th nationally. (Number of 20+ yard runs allowed by the 2008 defense: one. How does Dave Clawson still have a job?) Big plays, by their nature, always hurt, but there were far too many times that a big play broke at the wrong time. All the heart and fight the Vol defense could muster was no answer for big plays like these:
- Oregon: Darron Thomas 27 yd TD pass to David Paulson in the final minute of the first half, tying the game 13-13.
- Oregon: LaMichael James 72 yd TD run in the third quarter, giving Oregon a 20-13 lead.
- UAB: 52 yd TD pass after the Vols scored first, allowing them to believe they could play with us (which they could).
- UAB: 27 yd TD pass on 4th and 8 in the third quarter, cutting UT's lead to 23-15 after the two point conversion.
- LSU: Jordan Jefferson 83 yd TD run on the first play of the game.
- Georgia: Aaron Murray 35 yd TD run on their first drive of the game.
- Georgia: Aaron Murray 33 yd pass to A.J. Green on the first play after Eric Gordon fumbled a kickoff. UGA scored two plays later to make it 17-0 in the first quarter.
- Georgia: Aaron Murray 30 yd pass to Aron White on the first play after Eric Gordon fumbled a punt. UGA scored two plays later to make it 24-7 in the second quarter.
- Alabama: Greg McElroy 38 yd pass to Julio Jones on the first play of the third quarter. Bama scored three plays later to make it 20-10 and crush UT's hopes.
- South Carolina: Stephen Garcia 70 yd TD pass to Alshon Jeffery two plays after the Vols had tied the game in the fourth quarter.
- South Carolina: Marcus Lattimore 40 yd run (plus 15 yard personal foul penalty) on the ensuing drive to move into scoring position and end UT's hopes.
- North Carolina: Shaun Draughn 58 yd TD run on the third play of their first drive.
- North Carolina: T.J. Yates 39 yd TD pass to Erik Highsmith on 3rd and 1 in the final seconds of the second quarter to give UNC the lead back 17-14.
- North Carolina: T.J. Yates 28 yd pass (plus 15 yard penalty on Janzen Jackson) on the first play of the infamous final drive in regulation.
Those are just 14 of the 45 big plays the defense gave up last season, but they're the ones that really made a difference. Tennessee's defense did take away the big play, for the most part, against Ole Miss and Kentucky offenses that had utilized it against other teams throughout the year. The Vols also bent but didn't break against LSU, but it should be noted that the Tigers' 4th and 15 conversion on the final drive isn't even included in the list of big plays allowed because it didn't meet the necessary yardage requirements, but that certainly hurt. The Vols broke completely against UAB, they just didn't have a kicker who could capitalize.
So while there were some situations where teams didn't get as many points as they should, the Vols can certainly still improve in bending but not breaking. This defense does not appear to be one that's going to flat out shut teams down, especially when facing teams like Arkansas on the schedule. But for sure, it needs to be one that allows fewer than 45 big plays (25+ yd passes, 20+ yd runs). Getting pressure on the quarterback will help, and having such a high body count in the secondary means you almost have to have better production from them.
It's fair to ask Tyler Bray to win a shootout or two, but not every week, not as a sophomore with sophomores all around him. If the defense can just make marginal improvements in big plays, points allowed (gave up 28+ seven times last year) and yards allowed (382.2 per game last year), life is going to be much easier on Bray and the Vols in general.
This defense may be a long way from great, but it can and must make progress for Tennessee to do the same. Progress starts by stopping the bleeding that occurs when teams gash you for huge gains. Who will be the four to six guys in the secondary who help make that happen? Here again, the faster they mature and the quicker we find out exactly who the best players are, the sooner the Vols will really have a chance to compete.