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How Good Can Tennessee's Defense Be?

The Vol defense entered the season with baggage and uncertainty, but through three games has played above everyone's expectations.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

When Tennessee shut down Chuckie Keeton and Utah State in week one, some of us did the week one stuff where we assume only the very best about our team ("This defense can carry us all year!"), and some of us did the week one stuff where we try not to overreact ("It's only one game, but...").  A couple weeks and a couple games later, it's clear Utah State isn't quite as good as we thought they were...but Tennessee's defense?  It might be the real thing.

Accolades might be too easily given for this fanbase and this defense because of what we've seen out there the last two years.  Last year the Vols were 100th nationally in yards per play allowed (6.07).  In 2012 Sal Sunseri put the worst defense in school history on the field, finishing in the triple digits nationally in every major statistical category.

So it's not that the 2014 Vols have the best defense in the nation or anything close to that.  But if you're looking for measurable improvement from Team 118 the defense is absolutely the best place to start.

Tennessee's 4.14 yards per play allowed against Utah State was the Vols' best performance in victory against an FBS opponent since the 2009 Georgia game.  The third best performance in the last five years came the very next week against Arkansas State, allowing just 4.24 yards per play.  Oklahoma got 6.78 yards per play, but compare that to what the Vols have done against elite competition recently?

  • 2014 Oklahoma 6.78
  • 2013 Oregon 9.04
  • 2013 Alabama 7.37
  • 2013 Missouri 6.35
  • 2013 Auburn 7.98
  • 2012 Florida 8.81
  • 2012 Georgia 8.75
  • 2012 Alabama 8.04

So only last year's Missouri game with no James Franklin was a better statistical performance by a Vol defense against an elite opponent in the last three years.  Instead of getting blown away, the Vol defense held their own against what could be an elite offense.

The Vols are also doing it with substance over style. In three games Tennessee has just five sacks (which is still on pace for the best year in Knoxville since 2010) and six turnovers, creating two in every game.  If two-per-game held up all year we'd take it, but we haven't seen the weirdness of 2013 Western Kentucky or anything close to it yet.  The Vols are also 38th nationally in tackles for loss per game; again, that's good and certainly better than what we've seen recently, but it's not mind-boggling.  Instead of relying on a handful of big plays, the Vols are simply doing a good job on the vast majority of all plays.

Part of that is keeping the opposition from making big plays, the bane of the 2012 defense and something that didn't drastically improve in 2013 (although strength of schedule is certainly a factor there too).  The 2012 Vols gave up 74 plays of 20+ yards, 115th nationally.  Last year Tennessee gave up 65 plays of 20+ yards, 91st nationally.  But through three games this year the Vols have only given up 10 plays of 20+ yards, on pace to cut the big plays allowed in half.

This is remarkable considering how much youth is playing on that side of the ball.  The Vols are closer to being "back" at linebacker than anywhere else right now, but that still includes a sophomore in Jalen Reeves-Maybin who is currently fourth in the SEC in tackles and Curt Maggitt who didn't play at all last season.  A.J. Johnson has been everything we needed him to be, leading the league in tackles and leading this defense with authority.  In the secondary Brian Randolph has been steady, but then you've got a sophomore in Cam Sutton who might be Tennessee's best individual defender, and then you've got true freshman Todd Kelly Jr. playing lots of snaps at safety and a guy in Michael Williams at the other corner most fans didn't even know was on the team a month ago.  On the line the Vols start a sophomore and another true freshmen at both end spots and replaced both starters at tackle from last year.

28 players have recorded a tackle for the Vol defense.  21 of them are freshmen, sophomores, or jucos, including half of the top ten.

The most famous effort of the Vol defense is Third Down For What, and we keep making this point because it's extremely important:  the Vols are so good on third down (10 of 43 allowed, third best in the country) in part because they've been so good on first and second down.  Utah State needed an average of 7.7 yards to get a first.  Arkansas State needed 7.5 on average.  And Oklahoma averaged 6.8 yards to gain on third down.

There are some exceptions here - Oklahoma only faced two third downs on their three offensive touchdown drives, including their only 3rd and less than 4 of the game - but overall Tennessee has done better-than-expected work in every defensive phase, and they're doing it with a group of a few key veterans and a ton of freshmen and sophomores.  And despite the youth (and this goes for both sides of the ball), the Vols are third nationally in penalty yards per game, with just 9 for 64 on the year.

Health and depth will be issues all year, but Tennessee can also get more productive with the return of Trevarris Saulsberry at defensive tackle and just more reps for the freshmen and newcomers.  Some may hit the wall at some point, but probably not in a way that compromises the entire defense.  And if you want to keep getting excited about the future, the Vols are going to miss A.J. Johnson a ton, but the only other graduation losses will be at defensive tackle, where one will be replaced by Kahlil McKenzie, and at nickel back where Tennessee will have plenty of options to replace Justin Coleman.

The best is yet to come for the entire program, but that can also be specifically true for the defense the rest of this season.  Holding their own against Oklahoma gives you hope they can hold their own against Georgia.  And if they continue to progress, perhaps they could be the difference between losing and winning in some games against the rest of the schedule in October and November.  The defense has already played at a level which suggests competitiveness, which is all anyone could ask from this team against this schedule this year.  But what we've seen has been so encouraging, I think the ceiling is still rising on what they can do right now.  For the first time in three years, Tennessee has a living, breathing defense on the field.  And for the first time since Monte Kiffin and John Chavis stood on the Vol sidelines, Tennessee could have a defense that can help the Vols win the games we thought were too far ahead of schedule.

I know Gurley is coming.  But I can't wait to see if we can slow him down.  Half these kids don't know any better.  The other half may be good enough to make up the difference.  Put together, they could do their part to give Tennessee a real chance this time next week.  It doesn't sound like anything we would've believed a few weeks ago.  But everything about Butch Jones has been ahead of schedule.  I'm eager to see where we are in another week, in another big test.

Go Vols.