Anyone paying even the slightest attention the to the Tennessee Volunteers last season can tell you that their defense was one of the worst in the country. This became obvious from the start when the Vols allowed Georgia Tech to run all over them for a historically bad 535 yards.
So out went Butch Jones and in came Jeremy Pruitt. After earning his stripes at Florida State, Georgia, and Alabama — it’s clear that Pruitt’s bread and butter is defense.
Tennessee’s defensive struggles — as with most teams — started up front. The Vols had no push at all and couldn’t generate a consistent pass rush with four defensive linemen enough to hide all the deficiencies within the unit.
It was like watching the Red Wedding scene from Game of Thrones over and over again, except you expect Robb Stark to live every time. Stopping the opponent just ain’t happening.
Football Outsider’s defensive line metrics helps illustrate this point. Tennessee was one of the worst teams in the country when it came to their run defense, but were surprisingly somewhat-efficient when it came to rushing the quarterback.
But even still, out of 64.5 total sacks, only 27.5 came from the defensive line.
What killed the Vols the most was the “opportunity rate” opponents were able to acheive against them. FO’s metrics state that the opportunity rate is the percentage of carries (when five yards are available) that gain at least five yards, i.e. the percentage of carries in which the line does its job, so to speak.
Tennessee was almost dead last in this category. Offensive lines could essentially do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, leaving the pass rush in dire situations more often than not. However, despite going against crappy odds, the d-line still managed to find limited success on passing downs. If Pruitt can find a way to maximize his current crop on the line then good things will be in store for Tennessee’s defense.
One similarity from the previous regime is that Bob Shoop’s pressure came more from the linebacker position than anywhere else, hell, Colton Jumper led the team with 10 sacks in 2017. With the Vols switching over to a 3-4, the emphasis for a pass rush will still reside mainly with the linebackers. That is good news for Tennessee who fields quite the mix in talent at the position when all players are healthy.
Add in the arrival of J.J. Peterson - one of the nation’s top defensive recruits - and all of a sudden the Vols are loaded at the second level with returning players such as Daniel Bituli, Darrell Taylor, and Jonathon Kongbo (the latter two are making the switch to OLB this season).
But it remains to be seen what the Vols can do in the trenches. Shy Tuttle, Kyle Phillips, and Alexis Johnson return, but they were part of the problem up front last year. Can they put it together and thrive in the new system?
This will be the key to how good Tennessee’s defense will be in 2018. The back end of the defense is important as well but that can always be masked with an excellent front and Pruitt knows this.
Of the 10 players the Vols recruited on defense, 60% were defensive linemen, so Pruitt is already getting better players who are more equipped to play the correct roles in his system.
So far he has done a good job, but no one will really know for sure until the Vols take on West Virginia week one. Will Grier and David Sills V will be a perfect first test.
If everything breaks right, the Vols could make a major jump with a young defense for Pruitt to build on in the coming years.