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Alabama Football 2014: Previewing the Tennessee Defense

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The Vols' defense can't overcome offensive ineptitude

A.J. Johnson (45) is quietly becoming one of the greatest linebackers in Tennessee history.
A.J. Johnson (45) is quietly becoming one of the greatest linebackers in Tennessee history.
USA TODAY Sports

For a team that has won only four SEC games in the past four seasons, the Tennessee Volunteers have been competitive on the defensive side of the ball this season.  Sure, the men from Knoxville are 3-4, but three of those losses have been to teams that were in the top 12 at the time that the games were played.

Unfortunately, for the Vols, the road won't get any easier Saturday.  Tennessee will face a fourth-ranked Alabama team that just turned in arguably its most dominating and complete performance in decades (one week removed from one of its worst performances in a win in recent memory).  For Tennessee to have a chance to win, it will have to rely on a raucous home crowd and strong defense - factors that have caused the Crimson Tide to struggle this season.

The Volunteers are coming off their worst defeat of the season - a 34-3 loss to #3 Ole Miss.  However, Vols defense played fairly well given the circumstances.  Ole Miss didn't earn a first down until its fourth drive of the game, and the score was only 14-3 at halftime.  However, UT's inept offense (five sacks allowed, three interceptions, a fumble, zero rushing yards) against the Rebels eventually caused the defense to succumb.

Linebackers

The heart of the Tennessee defense is its middle linebacker.  Senior A.J. Johnson is the team's leading tackler and best player - a bonafide NFL prospect.  Johnson (6'2", 245 lbs) is the fourth player in Tennessee history with 400 career tackles, and will likely become the first player in school history to lead the team in tackles for three consecutive seasons (he currently has 20 more than the next player on the team).  The captain and signal caller of the defense, Johnson has been a starter since his freshman season and has not missed a game in his career at Tennessee.  He averages a stunning 11.14 tackles per game and has eight tackles for loss this season.

At the Will linebacker position is Jalen Reeves-Maybin, a 6'1", 230-lb sophomore.  Reeves-Maybin is second on the team in tackles (58) and ranks sixth in the SEC averaging 8.2 tackles per game.  He has seven tackles for loss in 2014.  His counterpart at Sam is junior Curt Maggitt (6'3", 251 lbs).  Maggitt is tied for sixth on the team in tackles with 23 and has three sacks this year.  Maggitt is a third-year starter, but was redshirted in 2013 after recovering from ACL surgery.

Secondary

Statistically, Tennessee's secondary is one of the best in the SEC, ranking second in passing yards allowed per game (166.7) and fourth in passer rating allowed (104.21).  At the corners are senior Justin Coleman (5'10", 188 lbs) and sophomore Cameron Sutton (6'1", 190 lbs).  Coleman is another four-year starter on this experienced unit.  He has 20 tackles, including 3 for loss, and an interception on the season.  Sutton started every game last year as a freshman and leads the team this season in interceptions, with three.  He also returns punts for the Vols, averaging 7.60 yards per return.

Strong safety Brian Randolph (6'0", 209 lbs) is third on the team in tackles with 49, which is tied with Alabama's Landon Collins for the most stops by a defensive back in the SEC as well as the most tackles per game (7.0) by a DB.  The redshirt junior is a four year starter (he had a medical redshirt in 2012), playing at strong and free safety as well as at the nickel position.

Junior LaDarrell McNeil (6'1", 215 lbs) starts at free safety for the Vols.  Yet another experienced player on the squad, McNeill is a three-year starter and is fifth on the team in tackles (30).

Defensive Line

Tennessee's line is in the middle of the pack in the conference at stopping the run, holding opponents to slightly under four yards per carry.  Compared to the rest of the defense, the line is fairly green, starting a freshman and two sophomores alongside senior Jordan Williams.  The 6'5" defensive tackle put on 24 pounds in the offseason to top out at 284 at the start of fall camp.  This hasn't seemed to slow him, as he already has as many tackles in the first seven games of this season (18) as he had all of last year.

Freshman Derek Barnett, while the least experienced player on the line, might be the best.  The defensive end became the first true freshman to start the season opener on the D-line in Tennessee history earlier this season against Utah State.  Barnett was a two-time Mr. Football in Tennessee's Division 2, Class AA in high school.  The 6'3", 267-lb freshman is fourth on the team in tackles (38) including 9.5 for loss and 3 sacks.  He also has three quarterback hurries.

Sophomores Danny O'Brien and Corey Vereen round out the line for the Vols.  O'Brien is a 6'2", 286-lb nose tackle while Vereen (6'2", 253 lbs) plays left defensive end.

Summary

Tennessee's defense is good enough to put pressure on Alabama and even keep the game close for a half, but it seems unlikely that the Vols' offense will fare much better against the Crimson Tide than they did against Ole Miss.  With the Tide finally getting their act together last week, it appears that the homestanding Vols are going to have a bad time.  Look for Alabama to walk away from Neyland Stadium Saturday night with its eighth consecutive win over Tennessee.