If you’re even the slightest fan of football, whether it be professional or college, there is one mantra that holds true across all formats of the game:
Defense Wins Championships.
We recently took a look at the five most important players on the offensive side of the ball, but when it comes to defense, the Tennessee Volunteers have more questions and concerns than a five-star recruit at Ole Miss.
Injuries completely decimated the defense of the Vols. At one point, the Vols were down to their fifth and sixth string linebackers. But in the end, this is the SEC and injuries are a part of the game.
They also lost three major defenders to the NFL Draft in Derek Barnett, Cam Sutton, and Jalen Reeves-Maybin. Not only were these players major producers for the team, evidenced by the combined 125 games played amongst them, but they were also the heart and soul of the defense in many ways.
In addition to finding reliable starters, the defense will be looking to replace the leadership void that these players left behind. That may be the toughest task of all.
These five Vols will have to find a way to accomplish these goals in order for the defense to perform at an SEC level.
1. Shy Tuttle, DL, JR
Injuries have almost derailed Tuttle’s career, but there is still time for him to develop into the player that required Beyonce’s presence for him to attend UT.
What he can do on the field this season will dictate how well the Vols’ defense performs throughout the season. Not only can Tuttle clog running lanes, but he has the ability to be an above-average pass rusher at the position, the latter being something UT desperately needs after Barnett’s exit from the program.
The kid can make plays when called upon, as we have seen flashes of his ability before:
The Vols were down three defensive tackles at one point in 2016, including Tuttle. They were forced to move many of their defensive ends inside and even had a backup offensive lineman playing defensive line, causing the Vols to allow 290 rushing yards per game from Week 6 to Week 12.
Cliches aside, the defense starts up front. And if the Vols want to avoid another historically bad defensive performance akin to last season, then they will need Tuttle to step up and be the menace he can easily be.
Having the ability to wreak havoc up front will aid the following player into taking his game to next level.
2. Todd Kelly Jr, DB, Senior
Since his freshman year, Kelly Jr. has been a playmaker. Even though he recorded a career-low two interceptions last season, he almost matched his career total in tackles in just one season.
TKJ is well known for making interceptions at crucial moments in games. He has great awareness and can read the opposing quarterback well, allowing him to stay out of sight and make quarterbacks pay for not keeping tabs on him.
But all plays aside, the time has come for TKJ to develop in the leadership department. Since four-year senior captain Cameron Sutton left for the NFL, there is now a huge hole to fill in the secondary.
Justin Martin has been notably improved this spring, but he struggled mightily at times last season. Emmanuel Mosley can provide good depth, but he has had his off moments as well and is currently injured. If either one of these players can step up, it would take immense pressure off TKJ.
If the younger, more talented players in the secondary like Nigel Warrior and Baylen Buchanan are relied on again this season, it will be up to TKJ to take them under his wing and get their heads right in order to play the position to their best abilities.
TKJ has some big shoes to fill, but it appears that he is more than capable of doing so.
3. Darren Kirkland Jr, LB, JR
Quite possibly the most athletic and smartest player on defense, Darren Kirkland Jr. is set to have a huge year. He is another candidate who makes a difference both on the field and in the locker room as well.
An ankle injury took away most of DKJ’s season (yes, the same acronym is being used here), but he has shown tremendous ability when he has been healthy.
DKJ would benefit the most from the interior presence of Tuttle. Having Tuttle take up space and blocks would allow DKJ to read the backfield better and give him plenty of room to roam from sideline to sideline.
He will also be crucial in run defense, something the Vols ranked 104th in last season.
Kirkland knows how important he is to the 2017 defense. No longer is he a “good player surrounded by great players”. Now, it’s his turn to be great.
4. Shaq Wiggins, DB, SR
Not often do you heavily rely on first-year players to make a big contribution, but Shaq Wiggins isn’t your typical first-year player.
Wiggins, a transfer from Louisville and former Georgia Bulldog, is a major need for Tennessee’s ever-changing secondary. Not only does he bring playmaking skill and leadership, he adds much needed depth to the defensive backfield of the Vols.
He was an All-ACC player in 2015 before injuries limited him to only eight games in 2016. When healthy, he is one of the more talented defensive backs in the nation. On top of the fact that he brings a ton of experience, he also knows how to get under the skin of his opponents.
Wiggins may also be able to infuse some confidence into this secondary with his ability to rile players up. And that never hurts.
Look for Wiggins to make an immediate impact and lock down one of the starting corner gigs Week 1. If he is unable to do so, then Tennessee’s secondary could be in trouble.
5. Jonathon Kongbo, DL, SR
One of the highest-regarded JUCO transfers in some time, Kongbo was to be for the Vols defense what Cordarrelle Patterson was for the offense in 2012. However, injuries and juggling big expectations prevented him from playing at a high level.
Kongbo’s season was disappointing, however, injuries aren’t supposed to occur like they did at Tennessee last year. With the proper support along the line, and at 6-6 250lbs, Kongbo should have no issue using his length to disrupt the edge for the Vols.
Kongbo has his work cut out for him. He will be the first player looked to when it comes to replacing the legend Derek Barnett, and he will also be called upon to replace long-time players Corey Vereen and LaTroy Lewis.
Having a new position coach in Brady Hoke should help Kongbo tap his potential. If he can even produce half of what Barnett did in previous seasons, the Vols pass rush should not drop off as much as previously thought.
With Khalil Mackenzie struggling to produce and stay healthy, the Vols will need Kongbo to come to form and step up like he should.
In all, UT returns 16 starters from 2016. They were expected to win the division last season due in large part to the fact that they had 17 starters returning from the 2015 team. If these players step up like they should, then the Vols could be a dark horse favorite to win the SEC East in 2017.
Thanks for reading and I look forward to hearing reactions in the comments below!