Unfortunately we continue to illustrate the dire situation the Vols find themselves in 2010, as replacing the best player of the decade falls to the backburner in addressing the team's needs. And we can get all Tebow-eyed here and talk about how there's no replacing Eric Berry, as a player or a person, but if you're reading here I probably don't need to make that argument to you.
Looking forward, filling the void Berry leaves behind is somewhat more complicated with the surprise departure of Dennis Rogan. Even without Berry, Tennessee would've fielded a strong secondary had Rogan not bolted for the NFL Draft (only to never hear his name called). But now without both of them, Tennessee looks very young in the secondary. After Darren Myles did a good job acting young for the first arrest of the Dooley Era, we now find ourselves with serious questions about the entire secondary for the first time since 2007. Add to this the fact that it's hard to quantify exactly what sort of difference Berry made in terms of teams just not throwing at him.
As good as Janzen Jackson could be, Berry's loss will still be felt at safety - I don't think any teams are going to gameplan around JJ (at least not yet). How much will that loss be felt in terms of the overall pass defense picture?
Last year, the Vols gave up 300+ yards passing only twice: Ohio needed 52 pass attempts for 319 yards (a problem created because of the Vols inability to sack the quarterback), and the Ballcoach dialed up 50 pass attempts for Stephen Garcia's 300 yards. Tennessee finished 2009 12th nationally in pass defense, giving up only 169.3 passing yards per game. In Berry's highlight-friendly 2008 season, the Vols were 4th nationally in pass defense, allowing only 160.4 through the air per game.
Monte Kiffin's defense used Berry in that hybrid "sacker" role, which took him out of the secondary and put him in the box more often than not. That left Janzen Jackson as the safety net, and the true freshman did an outstanding job helping to prevent the big play.
The longest pass play the Vols gave up last season was the 63 yard hail mary at the end of the first half in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. Before the bowl game, Tennessee gave up only 8 pass plays of 25+ yards.
(Here's where I like to play a little game called, "How much does Monte Kiffin hate the third down screen pass": The Vols led the nation (tied with Louisiana-Monroe) by giving up only 2 completions of 15+ yards on 3rd and 10+. But the Vols gave up 8 completions of 10-15 yards on 3rd and 10+, good for 78th nationally. Translation: nobody was beating us over the top, but everybody was beating us on the screen pass.)
Justin Wilcox and his multiple 40 - the best offseason combination of mystery and excitement since the Clawfense - will probably throw several different looks at teams in terms of pass defense. But the standards are high around here, and the rest of the secondary quietly played well behind Berry the last two years.
One area that can improve is interceptions: though the Vols were 12th in pass defense, they were only 76th in INTs, with 10 on the year. That stat is even less promising when you consider that the team leaders in interceptions were Eric Berry...and the unlikely duo of Chris Walker and Wes Brown, who all had two. Defensive backs had only five INTs last year, and four of those belonged to Berry, Rogan, and Brent Vinson...leaving Janzen Jackson's lone pick as the only one any player in the 2010 secondary has on their resume.
So how much do we trust this secondary? Jackson could be the best player on the team, and we hope he'll turn into the All-SEC player we all believe he can be. Myles is penciled in at the other safety, and we hope the only reason he didn't see the field last year is because he played Berry's position. On pure potential, we will be very good at safety.
At corner? Art Evans is thought to win one spot, and though he played a role in the success of 2009's pass defense, I think most of us feel like we haven't seen enough from him yet to believe that he is a true #1 corner in the SEC. The other spot is more open; it could go to a more experienced guy like Anthony Anderson, or it could go to a redshirt freshman like Eric Gordon. Clearly Rogan wasn't that great if he couldn't get drafted, but at the same time, we're going to feel a little uneasy about this year's guys until we see more of them in action.
Even when everything was at its worst in 2008, the pass defense was solid, and has been every week for the last two years. New faces, a new scheme, a pass rush that's left much to be desired, no Eric Berry, and dates with Julio Jones and A.J. Green on the calendar? Could be trouble.
But there is talent back there. And while there are very talented wide receivers in the league this year, the absence of Arkansas from the schedule and the questions at quarterback at Oregon, Florida, and Georgia leave us with no glaring situations where we fear for our lives against a great passing attack. The pass rush up front and the coverage in the secondary go hand in hand...and both have room for improvement despite losing first round NFL Draft picks.
Eric Berry cannot be replaced. But if potential becomes reality quickly, the Vol pass defense can still have a very good year.