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I Wanna SEC You Up: The Vol Defense

The good news for Volunteer fans keen on defense last season was the fifth in the conference performance against the pass, where the Vols held opponents to 190 completions of 331 attempts, 180.8 ypg, and had 16 picks. The bad news for Vol fans keen on defense this season is that three starters from that secondary are gone and the Vols finished in the bottom half of the rest of the defensive categories last season.

Pass Defense 5th
Passing Defense Efficiency 7th
Rushing Defense 8th
Opponent 1st Downs 8th
Sacks By 10th
Red Zone Defense 11th
Scoring Defense 8th
Total Defense 8th

The lackluster rushing defense hurt the Vols more than anything, giving up an astounding 297 yards to Air Force and 183 in the loss to Penn State. Opposing offenses were able to run the ball down the Vol's throat, primarily due to the early season loss of DT Justin Harrell and the loss of Tony McDaniel to the pros while J.T. Mapu, who started in '03, returned from a two year mission but was limited in his effectiveness. Though the Vols are stacked at DE, their troubles in the interior moved DC John Chavis to expirement with a 3-4 scheme during the spring to take advantage of the depth at linebacker and mask the problems in the trenches. How much this 3-4 scheme is used will be determined by the DTs. The tackles have potential (Mapu should be readjusted and can only get better, while he's joined on the inside by experienced players like Demonte' Bolden (22 tkls, 3 tfl, 1 sack), if he's healthy, and Walter Fisher (8 tkls, 2 tfl)) and should be better this season, but will have to prove they can stop the run and handle mobile QBs better. Despite the question marks at DT, there are several reasons for Vols fans to expect a formidable front seven, namely some enviable depth at both DE and LB:

DE Xavier Mitchell
Mitchell had a career high 43 stops last year, and is the leading returning tackler on the line. Of his 43 stops, 4 were sacks and 4 were for a loss. Sophomore Wes Brown, who had 17 stops (2 for loss) last season, provides key depth behind him.
DE Antonio Reynolds
Reynolds showed signs of being a big time SEC end last season, recording 37 stops (1 sack and 3.5 for loss), but will need to get more consistent pressure on the QB. He's backed up by Robert Ayers, who recorded 25 stops and 1 sack himself last season.
LB Jerod Mayo
Moving inside from weakside linebacker is Jerod Mayo, the second leading returning tackler on the team with 83 stops, and the leader in sacks with 5. Backing him up will be Ellix Wilson, who recorded 13 stops last year.
LB Ryan Karl
Karl returns to the Vols as the leader in TFLs (8, just ahead of Mayo's 7.5) after recording 66 stops last year. He's backed up by Dorian Davis, who did not see action last season.
LB Rico McCoy
The sexily named Rico McCoy earns a starting position this season after recording 38 stops (3 tfls) last season. Listed behind him is Adam Myers-White, who had 9 tackles last season.

With formidable depth in the front seven and new schemes to take advantage of available personnel, look for the Vols to improve on their 17 sacks last season. "But Todd," you might be saying, "what about the secondary? Will the Vols be able to replace three starters without a marked decrease in pass defense?" I'm glad you asked. The answer is probably not. While FS Jonathan Hefney returns with his 96 tackles and 5 picks in tow, he's surrounded by inexperience. Senior CB Roshaun Fellows was dismissed from the team for an "undisclosed violation of team rules," while SS Demetrice Morley was ruled academically ineligible, leaving the Vols with only Hefney as a veteran in the secondary. Coming out of spring, Antonio Gaines and Marsalous Johnson are listed at CB, though JUCO transfer DeAngelo Willingham and true freshman Eric Berry (the #1 DB recruit in the country) could push for immediate playing time the moment they set foot on campus. If what should be a much improved front seven is unable to get consistent pressure on the QB, look for the Vols to get burned deep with such an inexperienced secondary.

Tomorrow I'll run down the schedule and give my predictions for the upcoming season, while Monday we'll be joined by the guys from Rocky Top Talk to let me know if I've wasted my time and yours all week.