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Vols face new challenges on defense in 2015

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2014 saw an abundance of very talented receivers take the field against the Vols, but 2015 looks to offer a different type of defensive challenge for Tennessee.

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SEC Football Media Days are now over and done with, and that means the offseason is about as officially over as it can be before fall camps start up. Now is the time to really start looking at the 2015 season and begin analyzing opponents when the Tennessee Volunteers take the field in September. And while there is a ton of focus on the Vols themselves, it's time to pay some attention to who the Vols will face this season.

Last season, the Vols faced a plethora of great receivers and a handful of elite ones as well. Receivers Sterling Shepard, Laquon Treadwell, Amari Cooper, Pharoh Cooper, Javess Blue, Jimmie Hunt, and Bud Sasser combined to catch 42 passes for 922 yards and 6 touchdowns in 6 different games against the Vols. But of those seven receivers the Vols faced in 2014, only two (Shepard and Pharoh Cooper) will be back on Tennessee's schedule in 2015.

But aside from the two receivers the Vols will face again in 2015, no other team boasts an elite-level receiver on their roster. Roger Lewis of Bowling Green is the closest, recording 73 receptions for 1,093 yards and 7 scores as a freshman last season. But other than Lewis no other receiver the Vols will face this year has the track record to be placed in the category of receivers Tennessee faced last season.

However, the Vols will be facing a gauntlet of talented running backs in 2015. Oklahoma's Samaje Perine, Georgia's Nick Chubb, Alabama's Derrick Henry, Missouri's Russell Hansbrough, South Carolina's Brandon Wilds, and Arkansas' duo of Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins are all on the slate for the Vols this season. Even Bowling Green features a running back in Travis Greene who finished just 51 yards short of a 1,000 season as a redshirt sophomore last year and ran for over 1,000 yards as a redshirt freshman in 2013.

The eight aforementioned running backs the Vols will face this season ran for a combined 9,143 yards and 96 touchdowns in 2014, an average of almost 1,143 yards and 12 scores per back. Perine ran for a NCAA record 427 yards in a game last season, and Chubb is being billed as one of the only running backs to be in the running for the Heisman this season.

Tennessee's rush defense finished 9th in the SEC in 2014, giving up 168.4 yards a game on the ground on a 4.3 yard per carry clip. With the kind of firepower on the ground the Vols will be facing in 2015, those numbers will need to improve in order for Tennessee to have the kind of success being anticipated for this year. Especially against run-heavy teams like Georgia and Arkansas, which the Vols will face in back-to-back games.

Thankfully for the Vols, they have a number of new faces on defense to help shore up the holes in the front seven that existed last year. And a handful of the returning players in those areas look to be even better than they were in 2014. Defensive end Derek Barnett was used more as a pass rusher last season, but he can still wreak havoc on opposing running backs. Toss in five-star defensive tackles Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle on the interior, Corey Vereen and former five-star Kyle Phillips at defensive end, and Curt Maggitt as your defensive end/linebacker hybrid, and that's a formidable defensive line. Add that to Jalen Reeves-Maybin as a full-time linebacker and whoever wins the middle linebacker spot between former four-star linebackers Darrin Kirkland Jr., Gavin Bryant, and Dillon Bates, and that is a front seven that can compete against any team in the SEC.

The Vols had to spread themselves out last season to cover a number of elite receivers on opposing teams. This season, however, the Vols will have to look in the backfield more often as they take on a handful of dangerous running backs. The defensive mindset will have to change if Tennessee wants to win the SEC East.