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Can Tennessee’s Defense Be Better in 2017?

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It seems as if the only way to go is up after last season, but can the Vols defense make that happen?

NCAA Football: Bowling Green at Tennessee
The Vols defense lost a lot of key players during the offseason.
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee Vols defensive coordinator Bob Shoop discussed the Vols defense in separate interviews with Sports Radio WNML and the Knoxville News Sentinel this past week and he had plenty of interesting outlooks on the Vols defense after an abysmal 2016 season.

Injuries played a major role in the poor performances on the field, but Shoop mentioned there were other issues that led to bad play and how Team 121 is working to fix those problems.

“We’re doing a good job fixing the issues that hurt us last year and playing to our individual stregnths. We’re trying to identify who those players are and place them in a position that they can be successful.” - Bob Shoop, via knoxnews.com

So how do Shoop and Co. turn things around after losing arguably the three best players on defense, including the university’s all-time sack leader? We won’t know the full answer until September 4th, but here are a few ideas to speculate on in the meantime.

It’s Time To Grow Up.

As previously mentioned, injuries were a major factor on both sides of the ball, but mainly the defense. The Vols were down at least seven players on defense before the Alabama game and lost starting defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie during the defeat.

The injuries were so bad that foxsports.com was prompted to write an article detailing the injuries. The list had grown to ten players that were missing time for the Vols when it was published. Usually an article of that nature is covering the top ten injuries across the country, not just for one team.

Last season was supposed to showcase the starters and (mostly) senior players, while the depth continued to develop at the usual pace. However, many younger players found themselves starting on Saturdays due to unfortunate luck.

This can actually a good thing. It has been alluded to before how injuries at certain positions have allowed the learning curb to accelerate for some younger players. Now, it is time to use that experience and take it to the next level.

Players like DE Kyle Phillips, LB Daniel Bituli, and DB Baylen Buchanon will need to improve on the flashes we saw from them last season. DB Emmanuel Mosley is heading into his senior season, but he still has a lot to prove as well.

Comfort and familiarity will play big roles in the youngn’s stepping up and Shoop specifically stated how that type of comfortable environment will help the defense improve in 2017.

“Experience is the greatest teacher. I’m not looking around trying to figure out, “Am I in the right spot? Or are we doing the right drill?....

I feel more comfortable and I think the players feel more comfortable with me. When we walk in the room, they kinda know what to expect and I know what to expect.” - Bob Shoop, via knoxnews.com

Oklahoma v Tennessee
Todd Kelly Jr. heads a young but experienced secondary in 2017.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Rush. The. Damn. Passer.

Everyone knows the adage about front lines in the SEC. If you want to win, you must perform up front.

How will UT replace Derek Barnett’s production? Let’s take a quick moment to put his record-setting career into context based off the 2016 season alone:

The Vols totaled a mediocre 31 sacks in 13 games, compared to Alabama’s 53. The Tide had 17 players record a sack, while eight had multiple takedowns. Three players recorded eight sacks or more for Alabama on the season.

How many different players recorded a sack for the Vols? If you guessed ten, then you are today’s winner!

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl - Nebraska v Tennessee
Who will replace the legend?
Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Barnett registered 13 sacks on the season. Three of the team’s total amount came from the defensive backfield. Therefore, only 15 sacks were accounted for by the front seven.

That has to change this season.

The only player to even come close to matching Barnett’s production was Corey Vereen (7), and he has since departed to the NFL alongside Barnett. Only two other players recorded multiple sacks on the season.

Ideally, it’s never a good idea to compare your team to Alabama, but if you want to be the best, this is not a bad blueprint to follow.

The development and hopeful returns of Reggie McKenzie and Shy Tuttle are enormous factors in the success of the defensive line this season. Kyle Phillips and Jonathon Kongbo must record at least six or seven sacks apiece for the Vols to be effective in the trenches this year.

The Vols best season in getting to the quarterback came during 2014 when Curt Maggitt and Barnett lined up on opposite ends. Hopefully Phillips and Kongbo can recreate that same pairing and be just as effective.

Shoop believes that the defensive line is actually a strength this season. Hopefully he turns out to be right.

Darren Kirkland Jr. Must Stay Healthy.

Arguably the most important player on the defense, Kirkland Jr. has shown tremendous ability over his first two seasons.

He gained SEC All-Freshman team honors in 2015, but a high ankle sprain took away most of his 2016 season. He still managed to record 45 tackles and a sack in eight games.

The Vols suffered without Kirkland Jr. in the middle, allowing an absurd 5.84 yards per play by season’s end - something that certainly could have been avoided with Kirkland Jr. in the middle.

His athleticism and photographic memory are second to none and the Vols will need that combination if they want to improve upon last year.

Shoop has been on record complementing his starting trio of linebackers, but if Kirkland Jr. were to go down, it could spell disaster for the middle of the defense again.

As mentioned in a previous post, Kirkland knows it’s his time to shine. Look for him to anchor the Vols defense in 2017.

No More Big Plays. No More Yardage.

Shoop’s defenses have always been smothering, in-your-face type defenses. Never have they had a “bend don’t break” nor a “redzone defense” mentality.

Which is so surprising considering how awful the Vols were when it came to big plays and total yardage allowed.

The Vols allowed five plays of 70+ yards last season, four of those being runs. They also allowed 37 plays of 30-plus yards.

The Vols also gave up almost 450 yards per game. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that type of subpar play will lose you games. The Vols ranked in the lower half of every major defensive statistic in the country last year.

Talent isn’t the issue at Tennessee, the Vols have an abundance of it all over their defensive roster. Getting them to perform at the right level, at the right time is what Shoop must figure out.

Do Not Put The Offense In A Hole.

Last season, the Vols gave their the opponent a first-half lead in nine of 13 games. Six of those nine games showed the defense giving up double-digit leads in the first half.

Even though that is not ideal, UT had an offense that was capable of picking up the slack with pieces such as Josh Dobbs, Alvin Kamara, Josh Malone, and Jalen Hurd handling the football.

Tennessee v South Carolina
Dobbs won’t be around to pull the team out of a deficit this year.
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Guess who isn’t on the team anymore? All of those players I just mentioned.

Add in the fact that neither quarterback on the roster has started a game, it’s even more imperative that the defense does not put the offense in a hole like they did last season.

If that were to happen, opposing defenses would then be able to lock in on John Kelly, making either Quentin Dormady’s or Jarrett Guarantano’s lives that much more difficult. If the Vols can’t score this season, they will definitely have trouble getting to a bowl game.

The Final Verdict Is...

The defense can be better in 2017. There are several key issues that they must work on and improve, but if they can stay healthy then the talent to perform is there. Shoop seems to be a lot more comfortable this time around and he has the utmost confidence in his assistants. Look for the Vols to be improved in 2017, albeit there really is no other direction to go but up.