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Tennessee’s three most indispensable players on defense

Tennessee’s defense needs all hands on deck if it wants to take the next step in 2020.

Henry To’o To’o is the quarterback of the defense.
| Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

As we draw closer to the start of the 2020 season, it’s time to start dissecting the Vols’ 2020 roster.

Every year, we do a “most indispensable player” post for the offense and the defense. I mean, it’s basically a ritual. So you better believe the Coronavirus won’t slow us down.

Who are the three guys the Vols can least afford to lose on defense? Let’s dive in and find out.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 03 Charlotte at Tennessee
Bryce Thompson is Tennessee’s best corner.
Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

3. CB Bryce Thompson

Just because Thompson is third on this list doesn’t mean he’s lost any luster in terms of importance.

Thompson is still the best cornerback on the team and that’s pretty much without question. His ability to consistently play at a high level has earned him the reputation as one of the best corners in the SEC.

So why isn’t Thompson higher on this list? Well, it has more to do with those around him than it does Thompson himself.

There are other guys who can come in and maybe not match Thompson’s production, but at least provide a bridge over troubled water if he were to miss time.

We saw some really nice flashes from Warren Burrell last year. Alontae Taylor —despite some struggles— still has a ton of potential and has shown that he can play in the SEC. Shawn Shamburger, even though he’s mainly the Star, could also play outside every now and then if he really had to.

Overall, Thompson is the lynchpin in the secondary and the unit would definitely take a step back if he were to go down, but at the same time, it wouldn’t be a disaster like other positions.

TaxSlayer Gator Bowl - Indiana v Tennessee
Jaylen McCollough figures to be a big part of the secondary in 2020.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

2. S Jaylen McCollough

The Vols have a lot of young players in key spots on this defense and much of the unit’s success will rely upon what they can do.

McCollough is one of those youngsters. He stepped in after an injury to Trevon Flowers and never looked back. Now, he’s expected to fill the role of Nigel Warrior, who is currently a member of the Baltimore Ravens.

Speaking of Warrior’s departure, it left a pretty big void in the secondary. The Vols do have playmakers in McCollough, Flowers, and Theo Jackson, but Flowers has issues staying healthy and Jackson will man the other safety spot. There are bodies behind McCollough, but none with much playing experience.

Regardless, McCollough figures to be more of an in-the-box guy, but did play the Star position at times in 2019, so it looks like he may be lined up across from some slot receivers every now and then. Whatever his role may be, there’s one thing that’s certain: He has two excellent coaches in Jeremy Pruitt and Derrick Ansley to show him the way.

That versatility, the ability shown in 2019, and questionable depth at the position is what makes McCollough the No. 2 guy on this list.

TaxSlayer Gator Bowl - Indiana v Tennessee
Henry To’o To’o has a chance to be one of the SEC’s best linebackers this year.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

1. LB Henry To’o To’o

This one is easy.

It’s important to have leaders on your football team. Now that Darrell Taylor, Daniel Bituli, and Warrior are gone, someone has to step up and take over as a leader. There’s no doubt that’s what To’o To’o will be considered as in 2020.

He had an outstanding true freshman year, but hasn’t even come close to reaching his ceiling. It’s not just about To’o To’o’s abilities, either. It’s about what he means to this defense.

Like I said, he will be considered a leader and “the guy” of the Vols’ defense. He will likely communicate the play call from the coaches and also make pre-snap adjustments when the time calls for them, which are two extremely important responsibilities.

It only helps even more that he is one of the best players on the team in terms of production and athleticism. One could even argue that he’s the best player on this defense.

Even though there are guys like Quavaris Crouch and J.J. Peterson to make up for any lost time, we still don’t know how effective they would be in a full-time role nor do we really know if they could match To’o To’o’s production.

We saw what happened with Daniel Bituli missed the first couple of games of 2019. The defense took a major step back. I’d expect the same if To’o To’o were to miss time.

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