Tennessee Volunteers Spring Practice Primer: Defense

This guy (No. 37) comes back ... so at least that's good - Kevin C. Cox

Today's finale of Rocky Top Talk's two-part series previewing spring practice focuses on defense and special teams.

Just in case you missed Wednesday's installment, here is War & Peace ... er ... make that the Tennessee spring football offensive primer -- where you'll find 3,000 words of prognostications and open-ended questions that really have about as much substance as any other spring preview you'll find out there.

Or in the borrowed, modified words of Sum 41: all filler, no killer.

Today, we delve even further into The Great Guessing Game by looking at Tennessee's defense. I mean, we have a brand new coaching staff with brand new philosophies on offense and defense and and all new base scheme on this side of the ball. Anything we say here besides, "A.J. Johnson will be a starter and be pretty good," is probably a guess.

If you thought we made some bold predictions and leaps in logic in yesterday's feature, just wait until you get a load of this side of the ball. The Vols' defense was so putrid last year, the new coaching staff could try Dan McCullers at cornerback and it can't get much worse.

I hope exaggerations like that don't deter you from reading, but we'll attempt to be somewhat more realistic in today's look at the UT defense, or as I referred to it under Sal Sunseri, "The Big Orange Sand Fort." Just remember, Vols fans, it absolutely cannot get worse.

[I will now light myself on fire due to the number of times I've said that in the past seven years when it absolutely wound up not being true.]

DEFENSIVE LINE

Much like the offensive line we discussed yesterday, the UT defensive line is filled with players who are definitely SEC-caliber. While lacking the sheer star power of the offensive line, the defensive line and coach Steve Stripling shouldn't have a difficult time trotting out a starting four that will hold its own against most everybody.

Also like the OL, that depth completely disappears after the 2013 season, which is why -- just like their counterparts in the trenches -- the Vols will be beating the JUCO bushes for defensive linemen in this recruiting cycle.

Hammering out where everybody fits is the biggest issue, and that will be a continual theme throughout this extended look at UT's 2013 defense.

At defensive tackle, you've got two clear-cut starters and another player who should be a "third" starter who can substitute as needed. Behind those three, there are unproven guys with some talent ... and there is also some dead weight that gets scary when you look beyond this season.

The Candidates [Senior trio of dependable bodies at DT]

  • Daniel McCullers: The 6-foot-8, 360-pound behemoth had a really nice debut season for the Vols, and it was frustrating to all who watched that Derek Dooley elected to only play him in certain situations rather than all the time. He was a disruptive force in the 3-4, though he struggled with double-teams. This year in a 4-3 base, it should lead to more one-on-one matchups, and that will enable McCullers to be a much bigger force. It will also give NFL teams a look at how versatile he can be on the next level if he excels.
  • Maurice Couch: Big Mo struggled more than many thought he would last year as a 3-4 defensive end. He never really found a home and played inside and outside. Now, he moves back in where he played well during his sophomore season at UT. He'll enter his last season in Knoxville as the clear No. 2 DT.
  • Daniel Hood: The Knoxville native isn't flashy, but he is a hard worker who has built a solid career. He will play a ton this year, and I'm sure he'll even start some games. It's great to have a dependable rock like Hood inside, and he rounds out the trio of seniors who will get most of the looks inside.

Waiting In the Wings

Another senior in the group who probably figures to play a lot inside is former defensive end Marlon Walls -- who must be 80 years old by now. It seems he's been associated with UT as long as Gerald Williams was. Redshirt freshman Danny O'Brien was a ballyhooed recruit out of Michigan, and he may work himself into the rotation this season. He needs a good spring to prove he belongs. Greg Clark seemed to be a guy coming along for Dooley's bunch, so it will be interesting to see if he continues to move forward. Trevarris Saulsberry and Allan Carson are a couple of warm bodies who really need to take the next step or move on.

As you can see, when UT graduates four seniors inside -- along with two more outside -- after this season, things get really, really scary.

WHERE IS THE OUTSIDE DEPTH?

  • Curt Maggitt: His first two seasons in Knoxville, Maggitt has played well when healthy at outside linebacker. But the buzz is he's moving down to play on the line, where he was originally recruited. This will enable him to rush the passer and be more of a playmaker on the front end. The biggest question is will he be healthy? He battled turf toe all last season before tearing his ACL against Missouri late in the year. He certainly won't play this spring, so there will be other names who need to emerge in case he isn't full-strength.
  • Jacques Smith: Who had Smith in the pool for the biggest Vols bust of this decade? He's not quite as big a flame-out as Chris Donald or Kenny O'Neal or anything because at least he has played in every season, but Smith has not even remotely ever reached his seemingly limitless potential. Now, he only has one season left to salvage a semblance of a legacy. Like always, he goes into the season as a penciled-in starter. Like always, his on-field discipline is the biggest thing standing in the way of him losing that job. It' really tough to say strong words about such a player I love who is a great kid and a VFL, but he simply hasn't lived up to expectations. It's time.

Waiting In the Wings

Along with Smith, the other elder statesman who could find himself starting some this season is senior Corey Miller. He made some plays last year, and I expect him to be a big part of the picture at end this season. Behind those three, the Vols have a couple of nice looking young players on campus and three more coming. LaTroy Lewis was in line to be in the two-deep last preseason before injuring his knee and missing the season. Now, he is a lot of media types' pick to emerge as a playmaker this spring. There is playing time to be had at end, and the redshirt freshman from Akron is big and athletic enough to seize it. Jordan Williams is one of those guys who looks like an absolute beast, but it hasn't translated on the field yet. Entering his junior year, it's time for the 6-5, 260-pounder to rise up and earn some playing time.

Jason Carr, Jaylen Miller and Malik Brown are the trio of newcomers who'll get here in the summer. Carr almost certainly will play some in 2013, but at 270 pounds, the question is where? The other two had nice senior seasons in high school but were just three-star players who were a bit under the recruiting radar. Still, UT coaches like all of them, and it isn't out of the realm of possibility for them to crack the rotation.

Regardless, with six players exhausting eligibility off the defensive line, UT will desperately need to recruit six or possibly even seven players to fill out the depth for the future.

LINEBACKERS

A.J. JOHNSON ... AND THEN...???

The bad news for Tennessee is there simply aren't enough impact playmakers at linebacker. The good news is, with the move back to the 4-3, there isn't AS MUCH need for stars at linebacker as there was in the 3-4. That doesn't mean the Vols don't need to get a lot better at the position. But you can't create depth out of thin air, and we simply don't have it. It'll be a patchwork quilt this year. So, we'll leave out the candidates portion of this preview and just talk about A.J. ... then everybody else.

As we said above, A.J. Johnson will play. I know that's the least surprising sentence in all these thousand sentences I've written the past couple of days, but that's about the only clear thing in this muddy picture at linebacker. We don't even know where he'll play, only that he'll play.

Johnson has excelled inside in the 3-4, and he excelled on the outside as a true freshman in the 4-3. My best guess after talking to some folks I trust is that Johnson could move back outside out of necessity. The fact is the Vols don't have that many players who can play outside, so they'll see if some folks emerge this spring. If they don't, you'll see A.J. outside. If they do have a couple step up as possible helpers out there, it would behoove UT to play him in the middle. He'll be an All-SEC and potential All-America candidate regardless.

When it comes to guys who are probably better at MLB, UT has a few -- though none besides A.J. are proven.

  • Kenny Bynum: The redshirt freshman was in line for some playing time leading up to last season before getting hurt. Since he was originally committed to Butch Jones at Cincinnati, you have to think he's pretty highly thought of and could work his way into the rotation. He was adding weight, however, to play in a 3-4 and now is pretty big to play outside in a 4-3, so he best fits inside.
  • Christian Harris: The rising redshirt sophomore tore his ACL prior to last season and never really got in the mix for playing time last season. Though the old coaching staff liked him, this is a fresh start entering his third year in the program. Harris is 6-1, 226 after dropping some weight this year. Is he athletic enough to play outside? That's a question. He is built like a Mike.
  • Channing Fugate: Entering his senior season, the converted fullback is expected to be a factor somewhere in the rotation, but where? At 6-1, 240, he also looks like an inside fit, but he has the speed to play outside possibly and will get a look there.

Along with those guys who are best-suited for inside, you've got some players who are definitely OLBs who figure in the mix.

  • Dontavis Sapp: The rising senior and special teams star got a chance to play toward the end of last season and made several plays. Now, at 6-2, 225, he seems to be the perfect size for a 4-3 outside linebacker and isn't half-bad in coverage, either. It would probably be beneficial for UT if he won one of the outside spots, and he seems to be the odds-on favorite to do just that.
  • Brent Brewer: After showing so much promise a couple seasons ago, the rising senior is expected to move down and play outside linebacker his final season. He has a propensity to be out of position as a safety, so this move will enable him to be where he can just hit and make plays. He tried to move down once in the other scheme, and it didn't work, but he is more suited to play OLB in a 4-3 as well.

Raiques Crump is probably a better backup and special teams player, but it's not out of the realm of possibility that he could get worked in at linebacker. Lewis projects better as a DE, but he's currently listed on the roster as a LB. Greg King has moved back over to linebacker, and this is his last year to make an impact. John Propst is a senior who can provide depth.

Finally, there is a pair of freshmen already on campus who may or may not work out as an outside backer. First is Corey Vereen -- UT's only LB signee in last year's class -- who may wind up growing into a defensive end. He's already 6-2, 240, so he may be outgrowing the position, but he's certainly a pass-rusher who could work his way into the rotation. Though Jalen Reeves-Maybin is listed as a safety, I think he's better suited as an OLB. He's nursing a shoulder injury and won't be able to participate this spring, but it'll be interesting to see where he eventually fits.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Here's where it simply cannot get worse than last year.

New defensive backs coach Willie Martinez has a roster full of names who could be good but who haven't been as of yet. Then, there is Brian Randolph, who has had a stellar career at UT prior to tearing his ACL against Florida last season. A healthy Randolph is a great start to being a much, much better group. But who else is in the mix is wide-open.

ARE ANY OF THESE GUYS REALLY SEC-CALIBER PLAYERS?

Let's start at cornerback:

The Candidates

  • Justin Coleman: There have been times when the rising junior has shown flashes of being a really good looking player at corner. Other times, he's been a train wreck. Which one are we going to get? The Brunswick, Ga., native really needs to get more consistent, and he'll be in the mix.
  • Eric Gordon: Speaking of inconsistent, the rising senior has been one of the Vols' biggest playmakers on defense at times and a poster boy for what has been wrong with the unit at others. Though he'll never be the greatest cover guy, he's one of those players who has really struggled with multiple coaching changes. He'll need to play well this season.
  • Daniel Gray: Gray was really thrown into the fire before he was ready last year and had several scorch-marks from touchdown-scoring receivers because of it. But he's one of the fastest players on the team and a rising sophomore. Alabama's Amari Cooper had great things to say about going up against him last year, and UT needs its most talented corner to take that next step this year.
  • Riyahd Jones: You don't go sign JUCO players to sit the bench, and UT thinks the former Georgia Southern freshman starter is good enough to firmly be entrenched in the rotation this year. Jones chose the Vols over several SEC offers and is already on campus, so that's a good start.
  • Naz Oliver: Dooley hated him some Naz Oliver for some reason. But when he was canned and Jim Chaney took over for the interim game in the win over Kentucky, Oliver played and played well. Now, it's a logic leap to say somebody can look good against the Wildcats and then come in and play a lot against better teams the next year, but for a team looking for any glimmer of hope at corner, that was a welcome sight. Oliver will get a fresh start.

Whether or not Geraldo Orta ever gets on the field is still up in the air, but he's still on the team so we'll throw him in there. Former walk-on running back Jaron Toney of Alcoa has gotten some playing time the past two seasons, and he is a guy who could earn some snaps over the next couple of seasons. The other mid-term enrollee on campus is Lemond Johnson, who flipped from Auburn and is impressing some people this offseason. Johnson is a bit of a tweener who could play safety or nickel, and it'll be interesting to see if he can earn some reps.

UT gets some more help this summer when a couple of corners they're very high on -- Cameron Sutton and Malik Foreman -- get to Knoxville to help out. There is no more wide-open place on the team than corner, so both those guys will get their swings.

At safety, the Vols were bad last year but they actually are setting up fairly well this season if the top three take some big strides.

  • Brian Randolph: Everybody knows what the former freshman All-American can do, and it was a massive blow to the defense. With him being nearly fully healthy this spring, it'll be a big help. By the time fall ball rolls around, he'll be good to go, and that's big news on the back end.
  • Byron Moore: The rising senior was flat-out horrible at times last year. But he's a good player who, like a lot of guys, really struggled to fit into the 3-4 defense. He's more comfortable in this scheme, and one of the biggest spring battles will be between him and LaDarrell McNeil for the strong safety spot.
  • LaDarrell McNeil: The Texas product didn't disappoint during a freshman season where he was thrown into the fray probably before he was ready. McNeil isn't the fastest guy and really took some poor angles at times last season, but he's got potential. The Vols really need for him to live up to his elite prospect billing.

Again, JRM isn't healthy, but he's a really, really good football player who'll fit into the mix somewhere once he gets cleared. Johnson is somebody to watch where he winds up fitting. As for Tino Thomas, he's also kind of a man without a position, and it remains to be seen whether or not he's ever a threat for any serious playing time. I wouldn't be surprised to see Cody Blanc move back to defense if some receivers step up.

KICKERS/PUNTERS

Pretty much, I'm tired of writing and none of these guys deserve any space because they have been terrible throughout their UT careers.

But, basically, we need to hope that A.) Somebody worth a flip has possessed the bodies of Michael Palardy and Matt Darr and they actually earn their scholarships for once, B) George Bullock -- who was injured all last season -- is good enough to beat out somebody, or C) that Derrick Brodus has learned how to be consistent. There is also the possibility that redshirt freshman walk-on Ryan Ault or incoming freshman kicker Andrew Gantz -- who is slated to come to Knoxville rather than go play for Ohio State -- is awesome.

Basically, my hope lies in Bullock and Gantz. I've exhausted all my mulligans for Palardy and Darr. This was probably harsh, but I just want UT to have good specialists again. Is that too much to ask?

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