In conversations about Tennessee's defense - which we'll deal with overall later this week in our countdown - there is at least a sense that things should by all rights be better in the front seven. That's due in large part to the presence of Daniel McCullers on the defensive line and A.J. Johnson (and Curt Maggitt, when healthy) at linebacker, guys you and NFL Draft prognosticators feel like are going to be there on Sundays in a few years. The Vols have talent and experience up front and have more of the same when they're at full strength at linebacker.
But in the secondary, it's a completely different story. Consider: the only returning Vols with an interception under their belt are Geraldo Orta with one, and Byron Moore who's fighting for a starting position with sophomore LaDarrell McNeil. Tennessee has thirteen scholarship defensive backs, of which five are newcomers, two are position changes from the offensive side of the ball, and one more is returning from a torn ACL.
For the past two years we've come to this question and assumed because the Vols had a dozen guys with experience, surely four would pan out and be pretty decent. Not only did that assumption fail, but now experience has also left the premises, leaving behind only Justin Coleman as a sure thing on the depth chart. The rest of the blanks are currently filled in by the Moore/McNeil battle at one safety position, Brian Randolph's recovery at the other, and a host of newcomers looking not to play, but to start at the other corner. And one of them, incoming juco Riyahd Jones, is out indefinitely with a leg injury left up to your level of optimism and imagination.
It's a mess back there on paper. However, a couple of things also work to their advantage. One, there's really nowhere to go but up after last year's group was torched for 282.5 yards per game through the air. And while it's definitely not fair to put all the blame on last year's secondary without mentioning the anemic pass rush and the general presence of Sal Sunseri - again, more on the entire defensive rebuild later this week - these Vols should be able to make at least a slight improvement on last year's numbers even while freshmen get their feet wet and in the process get burned a time or two.
And two, having Willie Martinez back there should also make a significant difference. Coaching was a ginormous part of UT's defensive problems last year, and some obvious X's and O's issues should get resolved this time around.
Last year the Vols were 91st nationally in passes defended per game (interceptions + pass break ups). To me it's this stat, more than passing yards allowed, that was troubling about the Vol defensive backs. Tennessee was 107th in that stat the year before, so it's more than just Sunseri. But often times last year Tennessee simply wasn't even in position to make a play, either via busted coverage or simply getting blown by. Even correcting the mental coverage issues, the Vols also appeared to need better athletes in the secondary last fall. The good news here: help appears to be on the way.
When we looked at which newcomers would be ready to contribute at the start of this series a few weeks ago, we didn't even put Cameron Sutton in our poll. He has since become the first newcomer to have the black stripe removed from his helmet, and with Jones out for an undisclosed amount of time it should surprise no one at this point to see Sutton in the starting lineup on August 31. And if not Sutton, how about Malik Foreman, also not in our poll of newcomers, but also right there for serious playing time. Jalen Reeves-Maybin, another talented freshmen, is now getting looks at outside linebacker, along with former safety Brent Brewer.
Optimistic projections about this group right away mean you have to believe whoever wins the Moore/McNeil battle is really a great player - something I can buy as McNeil was the highest rated recruit of the 2012 class and Moore has been one of the team's best leaders in the offseason - and know the other is still going to play a lot in nickel/dime packages. You have to hope Brian Randolph returns from his knee injury 100%, and that a lot of the reason the Vol defense struggled in 2012 was because he went down in mid-September, which is an argument you wouldn't be alone in having:
The more I'm around Brian Randolph, the more I understand why Vols' D went off a cliff after he got hurt last season. Bright, mature kid.— Wes Rucker (@wesrucker247) August 15, 2013
You have to like Justin Coleman as your number one option at corner, because I don't see that changing anytime soon. And you have to believe someone between Sutton, Foreman, and Jones is a really special talent, because they're going to get in the fire. A lot.
Can some of those things be true? Absolutely. Perhaps even all of them will be in time. But how soon can Tennessee be at least good enough to compete in the secondary? We're not sure - it's an answer that can certainly be helped along by a stronger pass rush, but a defense that gives up big plays in the pass game will no longer have a high-scoring offense to bail it out. The Vols need all the help they can get, and however that helps comes in the secondary, it better get here as soon as possible. Good things can be in store for this group...but will they be soon enough to make a difference in 2013?