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Orange and White Game Defensive Notes: Pruitt, Sherrer dial up the aggression

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It was a much different looking defense for Tennessee on Saturday.

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Naturally, all eyes were on the offense on Saturday afternoon during the Orange and White game. Rightfully so — being that Tennessee ranked nearly dead last in total offense in 2017. Fans wanted to see what improvements Tyson Helton could make.

However, I was just as interested in the defense, which Jeremy Pruitt would love to turn into his bread and butter at Tennessee. The Vols debuted their new 3-4 defensive look during the spring game, playing a number of old faces in some new positions. Here’s what stood out.

Defensive Notes

Nickel look

The White defense (1st-teamers) played quite a bit more with four down lineman than expected. It was a nickel look to matchup with the 3WR sets that Tyson Helton was throwing at them.

Shawn Shamburger got the bulk of the work as the nickel.

Kyle Phillips was the one to kick inside with four defensive lineman on the field. Shy Tuttle joined him inside, while Jonathan Kongbo and Darrell Taylor worked from the outside.

Tennessee played plenty of press man on the outside out of this look, matching up Marquill Osborne and Baylen Buchanan out wide. Micah Abernathy was tasked with plenty of single-high responsibilities, while Nigel Warrior was asked to do a few different things. Warrior matched up with tight ends and blitzed from the line of scrimmage, blowing up a couple of run plays in the process.

3-4 Base look

Deandre Johnson and Darrell Taylor got the go at the edge positions for the White team. Austin Smith and Jordan Allen got those reps for the Orange squad.

As expected, it was Kyle Phillips and Jonathan Kongbo at the five-technique (34DE) spots. Shy Tuttle anchored the middle from the nose tackle position.

Quart’e Sapp and Will Ignont were the starters at inside linebacker, but Daniel Bituli and Darrin Kirkland Jr. were held out as they are still recovering from injury.

Here’s a look at the new 3-4 base.

Gameplan

The gameplan was pretty vanilla, as you might have expected. We saw a ton of man coverage, aggressively executed just as Jeremy Pruitt promised in his opening press conference.

Defensive coordinator Kevin Sherrer didn’t sit on his hands all day, however. He had the freedom to dial up some pressure and he took advantage of that. The extra blitzer typically came from the secondary. Those blitzes forced quick decisions from quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, which I thought he actually handled pretty well.

We saw blitzes of five, six and seven men throughout the day. It wasn’t all that disguised, either. They pretty let you know when and where they were coming from, for the most part.

Here’s an example of that. Sherrer brought all six from the line of scrimmage, plus the middle linebacker.

Players who stood out

  • Kyle Phillips was a consistent source of pressure, getting home from both the inside and outside. I thought he held up pretty well against the run, playing a little bit of a new position. He showed a nice ability to shed blocks and plug lanes.
  • Quart’e Sapp played with great energy from the linebacker position, flying to the football and cleaning up plenty of runs.
  • Marquill Osborne was an unknown coming into this one, but he held his own. I thought he showed some nice recovery speed in certain spots. It was a good day’s work for Osborne, considering how much press-man he was asked to play. He looked pretty sticky in coverage playing down the field.

What went wrong

  • Turnovers and a lack of field position made things look worse than they really were for the first team defense. But I thought the first team offensive line did win the battle up front on Saturday. That’s concerning for the defense, considering how banged up the Vols are on the line. Just remember that Tennessee is still missing a couple of key pieces at linebacker right now and have plenty of reinforcements on the way on the defensive line.
  • Baylen Buchanan surrendered a couple of big gains to Josh Palmer — one down the sidelines and one over the middle which looked like a miscommunication. He also gave up the Callaway touchdown, but not many defensive backs are going to beat No. 1 there.
  • Quart’e Sapp was at fault on the final touchdown to Eli Wolf. He had a shot to make a play on the ball, but failed to do so. Wolf made him pay with an additional six points.