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Tennessee Orange & White Game Breakdown — Defense

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A look at what we learned in the spring game.

NCAA Football: Tennessee Vols Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that Tennessee struggled defensively last season. The Vols ranked 81st in the nation in total defense, and gave up over 400 total yards per game on average. With Jeremy Pruitt taking control of the program there was a lot of excitement, but some apprehension.

On the one hand Coach Pruitt is clearly a bright defensive mind evidenced by multiple national championship wins as a defensive coordinator. On the other hand, the last Alabama coach to come to Tennessee and install the “Saban System,” well, didn’t exactly work out. So what should we expect from Coach Pruitt’s defense with the Vols in 2018? Let’s take a closer look.


Scheme basics

I want to begin with a very brief overview of the basic structure of the new defense before getting more specific. Coach Pruitt has installed a 3-4 defensive scheme, which can also be called an “odd-front” defense. The “3-4” refers to three defensive linemen along with four linebackers. A combination of offensive personnel and formation will determine how the front seven defensive players align for a given play. It would be too long to get into every situation, but below is an example of the defense aligned in their “base” look with the strength to the left versus an I-formation with “regular” personnel from the offense:

Although this is the “base” defensive look it was actually not featured much during the spring game. Typically this look was only seen against personnel groupings with two running backs (as in the above picture), two tight ends, or in goal line situations. Instead the Vols spent the vast majority of the defensive snaps during the spring game with a four-man defensive line.

But if Tennessee is a 3-4 defense why was there such a discrepancy between three-man and four-man fronts? Most college offenses currently incorporate heavy use of one running back personnel groups and spread principles. The 2018 Vols offense appears to be in line with this trend, as they spent the majority of the spring game in 11-personnel with three wide receivers spread out, and occasionally the tight end flexed out, too. If the Tennessee defense were to stay in a traditional 3-4 look against these types of offenses it would force linebackers to cover faster wide receivers or athletic tight ends on the perimeter. This would create obvious mismatches.

In order to adjust defensively most teams, Vols included, will end up in their “Nickel” package. The adjustment made during the spring game was to take “Jack” linebacker Deandre Johnson off the field and insert the “Star” player, essentially an additional defensive back, Shawn Shamburger. This is a player that needs to have outstanding coverage skills, but is also physical and willing to support in the running game. Below is an example of Tennessee in the “Nickel” look, with Shamburger off screen to the right:

So, even though Tennessee is technically a 3-4 defense you should expect them to look more often like a 4-2-5 defense (i.e. in the “Nickel” package), especially against teams like West Virginia, Florida, South Carolina, and Missouri.


Lack of pressure

Now that that the basics are covered, what can we take away from what we saw on the field from the defense during the spring game? The aspect of the defense that most stood out to me was the overall lack of pressure on the quarterback in the passing game, particularly with a four man rush. Last year Tennessee ranked tied for 89th (with Georgia Southern, Texas State, and Kansas) in generating sacks, averaging only 1.83 per game. It was natural to take a step back after losing Derek Barnett and Corey Vereen following the 2016 season, but no one anticipated it would be that severe given the recruiting rankings among remaining defensive linemen.

The Vols didn’t look to be much improved from last season when it comes to generating pressure, in my opinion. Here are a few examples from the spring game of what I’m talking about with lack of pressure on the quarterback.

I want to take nothing away from Jarrett Guarantano, who by all accounts had a very solid spring performance and still had to make all of these throws. But look at the amount of space he has in the pocket. One could argue that this is a positive for the offense in terms of the protection. My counter to that is the relative talent and experience on both lines.

The Vols number one offense featured a true freshman and a true sophomore at both guard positions as well as a redshirt sophomore at center. This is in contrast with a starting defensive line that were all four-star recruits and includes three seniors as well as a redshirt junior. Part of playing great defense is generating pressure with a four-man rush. Coach Pruitt said as much in his introductory press conference. The lack of pressure generated by the front four is definitely a concern of mine heading into fall camp.


Blitzes

Interestingly, late in the game the defense began bringing more and more pressure to the point where they were actually bringing seven defenders against six blockers – and the defense still couldn’t get to Guarantano! Below are a couple of examples:

The Vols will play many tremendously talented quarterbacks this year including Will Grier, Jake Fromm, Jarrett Stidham, Tua Tagovailoa, Drew Lock, and Jake Bentley. It will be difficult to find another team who faces as much talent at the quarterback position as the Vols will in 2018. Getting pressure on these quarterbacks will be critical, especially considering the Vols’ depth at defensive back.

Although generating pressure with the front four defensive lineman is ideal, it just may not be a reality this season. My expectation is that Tennessee will have to get creative with blitzes and disguise their coverages often in order to be successful generating consistent pressure on the quarterback. There are many ways to do this, but the spring game featured a staple blitz from Nick Saban’s playbook that I expect the Vols to use frequently. This is called a “fire zone” blitz, and I have included a diagram of it below.

The “fire zone” blitz involves five rushers. This is a great blitz because it can cause confusion for the offense while staying sound against the pass with six defenders in coverage. The defensive end, Darrell Taylor in the above diagram, starts on the line in a three point stance and appears like he will rush. However, on the snap of the ball he drops back immediately into pass coverage. Meanwhile, pressure is brought from the opposite edge from the “Star,” who sneaks toward the line from a coverage position, as well as the linebacker. The defensive line will slant and attempt to draw the attention of the offensive line away from the edge pressure. Below is an example of what looks to me like this “fire zone” blitz. However, the linebacker seems to hesitate rather than immediately blitzing here.

There appears to be a free run at the quarterback, but the linebacker is unable to get there due to his hesitation. If he were to blitz immediately this very well could have been a sack for the defense. I’ve included other examples of this blitz below. In these examples the blitz is picked up well by the offense and there is therefore little pressure generated by the defense, but I believe the examples are still helpful to understand this blitz. When used in the right situations this is a play I believe the Vols will have a lot of success with in 2018.


Standout performances

I want to finish by discussing some individual performances from the spring game. First is from linebacker Quart’e Sapp. Here is an example of the offense running “Power” inside the 5-yard line.

Sapp’s technique is so solid here. He keeps his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage, shuffles without crossing his feet, scrapes over the blocks and attacks the line of scrimmage, then is able to wrap up the ball carrier when it spills to the outside. Sapp played a great game and it presents the Vols with a very good problem. We’ve already discussed that the Vols will mostly be in a “Nickel” look with two linebackers on the field. Also, Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Daniel Bituli are set to return. So, it seems that there will be three really good linebackers competing for two available spots. With Sapp’s performance I think he absolutely has to be on the field in 2018.

The second player I want to highlight is Kyle Phillips. He was destructive in the run game all afternoon. Below Phillips, in the yellow circle, is matched up on freshman Jerome Carvin, in the blue circle.

Despite giving up almost 70 pounds to Carvin, Phillips is able to use his quickness, strength, and technique to displace Carvin off the line of scrimmage. Then he pursues straight down the line of scrimmage, which is textbook, and gets in on the tackle.

Phillips made plays like this the entire spring game. Also, despite the lack of consistent pressure on the quarterback in the passing game as discussed earlier, Phillips individually was able to penetrate often on his pass rush. It’s easy to see why he was given the “most improved defensive player” distinction at the conclusion of the spring game. He looks like a player that can anchor the defensive line and be a tremendous leader for the Vols in 2018.

Finally, I want to highlight the play of defensive back Alontae Taylor. He was a 4-star ATH coming out of high school who began spring practice at wide receiver. Coach Pruitt experimented by moving Taylor to cornerback, and that experiment may have paid off. Taylor had a very good spring game in my opinion. One thing that struck me was his willingness to be physical. Below is a great example of this physical play where Taylor comes off his receiver as the ball is thrown and delivers a really nice hit and tackle in open space. For a player who has spent less than two weeks playing defense at the Division-1 level this was impressive.

Also, I really like his ability to avoid blocks in run support. Here is a great example of Taylor using his quickness to get around the block of Tyler Byrd, and maintain outside leverage on the runner.

A defensive back also needs to be able to cover. Unfortunately it was often difficult to see Taylor in coverage due to the tight camera angle. However, when we were able to see Taylor in coverage he was frequently in great position. Below is an example of Taylor covering Tyler Byrd well on a vertical-route and breaking up the pass.

Taylor is listed at 6’1”, which is excellent size for a cornerback. This, combined with his developing skills at cornerback could lead to a starting role when the 2018 Vols begin game action.


That’s all for the defensive breakdown! There is so much more that can be said about the Vols defense as we get ready for the 2018 season. Please share your thoughts in the comments below, or start a conversation with me over on Twitter: @Power_T_Tape.

Click here for my breakdown of the Tennessee offense.