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Heupel talks defensive progress ahead of opener

How good can this unit be?

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel via Imagn Content Services, LLC

It’s game week, and the biggest question of the offseason has now finally been answered. Joe Milton will be the starting quarterback for Josh Heupel to open the season, hoping to keep a streak of white hot offense going for this staff.

Now what about that defensive unit? Frankly, it was cleaned out when Jeremy Pruitt was fired as several key pieces opted to find new opportunities. Henry To’o To’o, Quavaris Crouch, Deandre Johnson and Key Lawrence headlined the departures, joining Bryce Thompson, who left for the NFL.

That created an instant problem for Heupel and staff to solve. However, in today’s college football portal era, it wasn’t all that daunting of a task.

“I’m excited about that group,” Heupel said of his defense on Monday. “When we finished up spring, that was a really thin unit hit hard by the transfer portal, a lot of it before I had even gotten here. Adding the transfers that we added, experience for a portion of them, some youth that can have multiple years here, depth, right culture pieces as well. I think that was a huge part, being able to hit on those guys in May that has helped our defense.”

Tennessee moved quickly to add former Texas linebacker Juwan Mitchell following the spring, while also bolstering the defensive front with Da’Jon Terry and Caleb Tremblay. A little bit later in the offseason, Tennessee added two cornerbacks — Brandon Turnage and Kamal Hadden — to add some needed depth.

“I look at the linebacker group, as a completely different meeting room than we were in spring ball, some of the guys came back from injury but just their growth as individuals, human beings, and understanding what we’re doing. We’ve added some young pieces in the secondary with a few transfers, as well. The depth at the defensive line position – there’s great competition.”

Calling defense for Heupel is a unique challenge for defensive coordinators. Tim Banks gets that gig this year, coming over from Penn State. He’ll be faced with the task of pairing is unit with Heupel’s on the other side, one that operates at warp speed. There won’t be a lot of downtime on the sidelines, so creating depth and streamlining adjustments is a massive part of the equation.

Coming with Heupel is a familiar face in Willie Martinez, and of the the SEC’s best assistants in defensive line coach Rodney Garner. Brian Jean-Mary at linebackers coach and Mike Ekeler at outside linebackers coach rounds out the staff.

“You’ve got great coaches on that side of the ball,” Heupel said. “They’re very cohesive, there is a great understanding of what we’re doing defensively and I’m excited watch these guys play on Thursday night, I really am. Through training camp, we always pull clips when we go into our team meeting of guys playing with great effort and strain. We use the word ‘attack’ inside of our team meeting room and that group, there are orange jerseys flying around every single day and it’s been fun to watch.”

So what does a successful defense look like for Tennessee in 2021? Let’s be honest, playing this style, you’re not going to be pitching many shutouts. As Heupel and Banks have preached, it’s about creating negative plays and turnovers. At UCF, under different defensive leadership, Heupel’s team won the turnover margin category to the tune of +12 last season. That’s a major key for year one and beyond as he transitions to Knoxville.

Will they find a pass rusher? Is the Byron Young hype real? Can the veteran secondary carry the unit as a whole? Just how good will Juwan Mitchell be at middle linebacker? Questions will begin to be answered, starting on Thursday night against Bowling Green.