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Tennessee Spring Practice: Pass Defense is the Biggest Question

Spring practice begins with more popular questions but no more important answer.

Tennessee v Vanderbilt Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Welcome to spring football.

Nothing makes March and April sizzle like a quarterback competition, and this year we’ve got the biggest spring signal caller battle since...Crompton/Stephens ‘09? Ainge/Rick Clausen ‘05? We might have to go all the way back to the four-man derby between Casey Clausen, Joey Mathews, A.J. Suggs, and John Rattay in 2000 to find a more anticipated spring football quarterback battle.

Meanwhile the Vols will welcome ESPN’s number one overall recruit to the practice field as Trey Smith looks to compete for immediate playing time. Offensive line isn’t the sexiest position, but Smith might be Tennessee’s highest-rated early enrollee ever. Recent comparisons like Bryce Brown and Kahlil McKenzie didn’t hit the practice field until August.

And the Vols have a new offensive coordinator with Larry Scott earning a promotion after Mike DeBord left for the greener pastures of his grandchildren. I’m sure the Vols won’t show too much in the Orange & White Game, but we should at least get an early feel for the differences in Team 121’s offense.

But none of those things are the most pressing issue for Butch Jones and the Vols.

Instead I think we have to look to two of the other position coach changes, which coincide with the loss of two of the most important fixtures of Tennessee’s defense the last three years.

Cam Sutton was that guy at corner from the day he stepped on campus, a four year starter and lock-down specialist before an injury cost him six games and the ability to play at 100% last season. Every question Tennessee has had in defending the pass has started with, “What about the number two guy?” since 2013.

Derek Barnett is a few weeks away from being a first round NFL Draft pick, having broken Reggie White’s career sack record. Last year he had 13, then seniors Corey Vereen and LaTroy Lewis added another 9.5 between them. Whoever starts at defensive end for Tennessee this fall will have no more than a single career sack.

What will Tennessee’s pass rush look like without Barnett? What will their pass coverage look like without Sutton? I think these are the bigger questions for this team, because if the Vols don’t have a good answer here, they’re going to be asking even more from an inexperienced quarterback and an inexperienced offensive coordinator.

Last year Tennessee allowed 47 20+ yard passing plays, 95th nationally. And they allowed 24 30+ yard passing plays, 102nd nationally and last in the SEC. Tennessee also wasn’t overly aggressive (or at least successfully so) in trying to stop the pass via blitzing: only three of Tennessee’s 30 sacks last year came from someone other than a defensive lineman.

Injuries were certainly a big factor at all three levels defensively, and Bob Shoop’s first defense bottomed out against Vanderbilt: after struggling to stop the run due in large part to those injuries, the Commodores shredded Tennessee for 11.9 yards per pass attempt. While starters should return to health at defensive tackle and safety, we’ve got a lot of unproven names stepping into large shoes at defensive end and corner.

An early move from Butch Jones and Brady Hoke on the defensive line:

Recruiting fans can still get quite excited about a Kongbo-Tuttle-McKenzie-Phillips defensive line. But all of them but Kongbo will be sidelined as they recover from surgery this spring, making this set of practices especially big for him and Darrell Taylor. You feel better about the names in the middle, but this will still be a big opportunity for Alexis Johnson and Quay Picou looking for room behind Tuttle, McKenzie, and Kendal Vickers.

It’s a different situation at corner, where injuries pressed a lot of these guys into service too soon last fall. New secondary coach Charlton Warren should offer a clean slate, providing a new opportunity for Emmanuel Moseley, Justin Martin, Marquill Osborne, and Baylen Buchanan. We’ll see how Rashaan Gaulden impacts this group if he stays at nickel.

There’s talent, and by fall a team at full strength should have plenty of options. But those options are more limited right now in a more important spring at defensive end and cornerback than we’ve seen during Butch Jones’ time. And I think their ability to succeed will have a greater impact on Tennessee’s ability to succeed than the Dormady or Guarantano answer.

Those answers start coming today. Snap and clear.