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Josh Heupel expects the Tennessee defense to improve in 2023

The talent level has come a long way.

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Clemson at Tennessee Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

There’s been plenty of focus on the Tennessee offense this offseason, and for good reason. The Volunteers will look much different on that side of the ball, losing a handful of key players to the NFL Draft. But what about the defense? Just looking at that unit on paper, they have a shot to get a lot better.

It was an up and down year for Tim Banks in 2022. Unfortunately for Tennessee, a low point came at the worst possible time. South Carolina throttled the Volunteers in November, knocking them out of the College Football Playoff picture. Issues popped up against Alabama and Florida, too. And then you had lights out performances against Kentucky, LSU and Clemson.

Tennessee will need to do without those few hiccups if they want to make a championship run in 2023.

“We took a step in Year 1 to Year 2,” Heupel told Josh and Swain. “You look at how we defended the run, our success creating zero to negative-yard plays, top in the conference. The year before we had made some strides.”

The Volunteers did make a leap forward from 2021 to 2022. Particularly up front, Tennessee looked like they belonged in SEC play. Rodney Garner’s defensive line developed, and Tim Banks’ aggressive style created plenty of negative plays.

Now with even more depth, Tennessee could be set to take another step forward.

“When I first got here, we were at 67 scholarship players that were counted for the fall,” Heupel recalled. “I think we actually had 65 that were with us during the course of that fall. Most teams were at 95 because of COVID seniors that year. We were decimated by the transfer portal before we had a chance to solve that problem.”

Tennessee added BYU linebacker Keenan Pili, BYU cornerback Gabe Jeudy-Lally and Arizona State defensive tackle Omarr Norman-Lott. They returned their entire secondary from last year outside of safety Trevon Flowers. The Volunteers will also bring in a couple more high upside pass rushers, adding Caleb Herring and Chandavian Bradley to the depth chart. Reinforcements are here at linebacker with Jalen Smith and Arion Carter, while Tennessee added future cornerback pieces like Jordan Matthews and Rickey Gibson.

The Volunteers were rolling in 2022, and that success spilled over to the recruiting trail. For the first time in a long time, Tennessee has legit depth and very few holes on the roster.

“Currently, we’ve added athleticism, we’ve added length,” Heupel noted. “We have a lot more competition inside of our building and certainly on the defensive side of the football. I expect us, and our players expect, to take another massive jump defensively in our productivity. At the end of the day, man, the standard is to win championships. But there have been a lot of great defensive players that have come through here. And the challenge for us is to go play elite defense. And I believe in who we have here in the building, coaches and players alike.”

Tennessee ranked just 91st in total defense in 2022, but that’s not really a fair way to evaluate this group. It’s a challenge to be paired with Heupel’s lightning-paced offense, so the points are going to naturally come. Instead, you have to look at negative plays and turnovers. The Volunteers finished the year tied for tenth in turnover margin, which is a big key to Heupel’s success. They also finished 32nd in third down conversion percentage.

A spot where they could improve is sacks, where Tennessee finished tied for 45th in the country. With James Pearce, Roman Harrison and Joshua Josephs back — along with a couple of highly rated freshmen — that number certainly could improve. Stabilizing the secondary and getting more pressure with four are pretty clearly the next steps needed for Tim Banks’ defense. The pieces do seem to be in place to do that this fall.