Just like the offense, this side of the ball will undergo some big changes in 2021. Nevertheless, there are still a few players the Vols must have throughout the year.
Who are they? Well, let’s find out.
3. LB Juwan Mitchell
Tennessee’s issues with a limited number of bodies at linebacker were well-documented during the spring, but that seems to be somewhat-resolved thanks to Mitchell’s arrival.
Mitchell is coming off a 2020 season in which he led the Texas Longhorns in total tackles (62) and led all of the team’s linebackers in solo tackles (32). He’s been pegged as a “savvy” addition to the defense thanks to his experience at both the JUCO and Power 5 levels.
“The biggest thing with Juwan with the group that we have because it’s so young and they haven’t had real collegiate experience, he brings a lot of that,” said linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary. “He’s played major college football. He was a starter in another Power Five conference, so he brings a lot of savvy and brings a lot of veteran leadership, which is what this group needs. He’s been a welcomed addition for our unit.”
Mitchell’s playmaking ability and experience are valuable traits, but the position he plays is what adds the most value to his presence. Mitchell is currently pegged as Tim Banks’ MIKE linebacker, meaning Mitchell will be responsible for communicating play calls, getting players lined up in the right spots, and making pre-snap adjustments during games.
That’s a lot of responsibility to shoulder, but Mitchell can certainly handle it. And he’s shown he can flourish, as well. All of this adds up to him being one of the most important defenders on the team. Even if it is just his first year on Rocky Top.
2. DB Theo Jackson
Right now, Jackson is running with the first-team defense at nickelback. If you watched the Vols play football last year, then you know how the defense desperately needs an upgrade at the position.
The Vols allowed 37 pass plays of 20+ yards in 2020 and much of that was because of the vacancy at nickelback. It’s one of the most important positions on the defense because whomever is in the role not only has to defend slot receivers, but they have to be able to provide run support and blitz the quarterback.
Jackson played the role better than anyone else in 2020 and the hope is he will show even more signs of progress with Tim Banks and Willie Martinez coaching him up.
Behind him is Doneiko Slaughter, who has experience playing the position, as well. However, his game is still very raw and in need of further development. Granted, he was thrown headfirst into the SEC fires last year, but still, he needs to show more improvement before he can be relied upon as a starter.
After that, it’s junior Romello Edwards. Therefore, the Vols really, really need Jackson to not only be on the field, but to man the nickel position. Because if the Vols don’t see improvement in this area in 2021 then it’s going to be a long year on defense.
1. CB Alontae Taylor
Taylor took a step back in 2020, but that doesn’t take away from his role in 2021. He’ll be CB1 for the Vols and will be matched up with the opposition’s best receiver(s) on a weekly basis.
The senior cornerback has all the tools to be one of the SEC’s best players at his position. But what’s been most impressive this offseason has been his development in regard to a leadership role. Taylor has become one of team’s most-heralded leaders -if not the most-heralded- through all the adversity over the last several months.
Taylor can be effective in both man and zone coverage, which makes him an all-around option on the outside. Even though the Vols have depth at corner due to Brandon Turnage’s and Kamal Hadden’s transfers, we still don’t exactly know what they’re capable of as starters. That’s something you don’t want to find out on the fly.
The secondary will likely be the strength of the defense and Taylor needs to be on the field for that to happen. At the end of the day, Taylor’s abilities and his role as a leader make him the most indispensable Vol on defense.