Tennessee’s starting defense was outright overwhelming last week against UVA. I expect that to be the case again Saturday against Austin Peay — at least for a little while.
DraftKings put out an off-the-wall, 62.5-point spread, so I’d say we’ll get a heavy dose of the recently added youth in the Vols’ revamped defense.
Since Heupel’s first class in 2022 — counting the portal — Tennessee’s signed four, 4-or-5-star edge rushers, three 4-or-5-star DL, four 3-star DL, nine 3-or-4-star DBs and 5 three-four-or-five star linebackers.
I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count that kind of influx of young talent, but it looks like the staff has added 25 players to the defensive side of the ball in its two recruiting cycles since Heupel took the job.
Unfortunately, UT will be without Keenan Pili, its highest-graded run defender (via PFF) for at least the next two weeks, if not significantly longer than that. (Just a rumor that he might be out until the end of the year... don’t shoot the rumor mongerer).
Regardless, we got to see the defensive line flatten the UVA OL like hash browns on a griddle. Of course, it was James Pearce, Jr., who got most of the praise, with his two sacks and 17 pressures in 18 drop backs. Per PFF, Pearce led the team in their “pressure,’ grade, with an elite 91.3 figure to go along with his seven tackles and five QB hurries.
Daevin Hobbs had six pressures on the six pass plays he played, and Caleb Herring, Joshua Josephs, Jayson Jenkins and Tyre West combined for 12 pressures on 16 passing plays.
Now the linebackers are where things get a bit more interesting, considering Pili’s absence. It’s likely that Beasley moves to the middle, and we’ll see either Herring or Arion Carter start at the other linebacker spot. Last week, Herring played 25 snaps to Carter’s 18, but the best idea is likely to play those two along with Kalib Perry and Jeremiah Tealander as much as possible.
In the defensive backfield, Wesley Walker’s transition from contributor at the star position last year to one of this year’s full-time safeties got off to a good start. He played 41 snaps — the second most on the team to McCollough’s 44 — and graded out second-best in tackling (80.5) and in run defense (75.7).
McCullough finished as team’s best tackler (83.4) against the Cavaliers (yes — I checked the numbers twice), but young Herring wasn’t far behind and finished third on the team, rating out at 80.1 on his two solo tackles and two assists.
But with guys like Jourdan Thomas and Christian Harrison, who’ve both made plays on special teams during their first two seasons in Knoxville, and freshmen Jordan Matthews and Ricky Gibson all vying for snaps on the back end, I’d like to see Heupel get the kids in earlier and let them go make mistakes, misread their cues, forget to think about the down and distances needed to make a third-down stop and have all of it on film so they can learn from it.
I’m not a betting man, but I figure after the Austin Peay game we’re gonna be looking at Herring and Carter as the two most impactful young guys — unless Pearce continues to be a wrecking ball off the edge — just because there’s now a starting spot on the defense that’s gotta be filled. That just naturally gives them the advantage. But if I’m picking somebody else, not named Pearce, Herring or Carter, I’d like to see Jourdan Thomas get significant snaps at safety and see what sort of athleticism he can bring to that spot. Regardless of the UVA game, the defensive backfield is still this team’s most glaring weakness, so give the kids a chance, and see if one of them turns out to be a gamer that doesn’t show off his abilities in practices, e.g., Joshua Dobbs.
Either way, it’s gonna be a blow out, so let’s find out what we’ve got in some of these new Vol defenders.