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Josh Heupel praises defense after first scrimmage of spring

Sounds like the defense won the day.

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

Tennessee held their first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday afternoon inside of Neyland Stadium. Though we couldn’t watch it live, Josh Heupel took to the podium to recap the day — and it was clearly a day that the defense won.

The Volunteers, entering the post Hendon Hooker era, didn’t miss much of a beat down in Miami against Clemson in the Orange Bowl. However, it was the defense that stole the show against the Tigers. That theme continued on Saturday.

“The ability to get off the field — I thought they tackled well,” Josh Heupel said of his defense. “They were disruptive at the line of scrimmage. Good pressure on the quarterback and third-down defense was really good. They found a way to get off the field. Alignment, assignment, execution, energy from the guys on the field, but also from the sidelines, too. That was very noticeable during the course of the scrimmage.”

The Tennessee defense was up and down for the most part in 2022. A lot of us still can’t — and never will — get that dreadful night in South Carolina out of our heads. However, the depth of this unit has improved at all three levels. That depth is creating competition, and it sounds like Tim Banks is off to a nice start in 2023.

Tennessee’s linebackers were singled out as a group that had a good day, led by veterans Aaron Beasley and Keenan Pili.

“They’re relentless,” Heupel said. “They play with energy and passion. We’ve done a good job of tackling in some of the small space, but also in the open field. That group’s got a lot of leadership traits. I like how the young guys have grown. They’ve kind of fit into the culture. Got to have them continue to grow here as we go through spring ball, but excited about that group.”

Some buzz following the day came from the pressure that the front was able to generate. Tennessee is replacing Byron Young, but they’ve got a handful of former highly ranked prospects ready to step into big roles. Heupel singled out a few of them after the scrimmage.

“We have great competition on the edges,” Heupel said. “That’s at defensive end (with) Tyler Baron, Tyre West. On the edges with our Leos from Roman (Harrison) to Josh (Josephs) to James (Pearce Jr.) to Caleb (Herring). We’ve got great competition there. We can do some unique things with our front.”

Four-star prospect Chandavian Bradley will also join that mix this fall.

In the secondary, Tennessee has a ton of bodies. This spring is just about getting a few to emerge from the pack. BYU transfer Gabe Jeudy-Lally joins the equation. Warren Burrell is back, along with Doneiko Slaughter, Kamal Hadden, Brandon Turnage, Dee Williams, Christian Charles and several others.

“We’re deeper in the secondary,” Heupel said Saturday. “As long as we stay healthier, we’ve got a chance for these guys to grow fundamentally, (with) technique and then scheme understanding, which can help make us a lot better as we get to the fall. There’s real competition there, which forces these guys to compete every day on the field, in the meeting room, in everything that they’re doing.

“Our second level, I feel like, has gotten better – dropping in coverage when we’re in our zone principles, playing off the quarterback’s eyes, making plays in the middle of the field. Then you’ve got to be able to rush and affect the quarterback. You’ve got to be able to have rush integrity, keep your lane assignment, I guess, and not let the quarterback get up or escape out of it. We’ve got to continue to grow in those areas for us to take another step on the defensive side of the ball.”

Tennessee has two weeks of spring practice left before they give us a preview of the 2023 season. The Orange and White game is set for Saturday, April 15th.