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Tennessee football: Josh Heupel talks upgrading defense at early signing period press conference

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It’s no secret that Tennessee football has a lot of work to do to upgrade it’s defense. The Vols’ 2023 recruiting class shows that’s been a focus of Josh Heupel and his coaching staff.

Despite five-star quarterback Nico Iamaleava being the star of the class, the majority of commitments so far have been on defense. Even more pronounced, 10 of the 15 early enrollees are defensive players.

“For us, continuing to recruit that defensive side of the ball to add to the depth that we need, along with the athleticism that we want, is extremely important,” Josh Heupel said in his press conference on the class the first day of the early signing period. “For everybody that’s here, I think it helps create urgency and preparing for spring ball.”

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All four transfers and all 25 commitments signed with Tennessee football Wednesday. Heavy ares of focus for Heupel on defense were at linebacker, edge rusher and cornerback.

Jeremiah Telander, Jalen Smith and Arion Carter make up the linebacker class. BYU Cougars transfer linebacker Keenan Pili also committed to the Vols on the first day of the signing period.

Smith and Carter are four-stars, and Carter was a huge get for the Vols earlier this month. He is an in-state prospect that Heupel lured away from the Alabama Crimson Tide.

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“That linebacker position is somewhere that we had to add a bunch of guys to, just depth wise,” Heupel said. “I’m proud of the recruitment of Arion. That was big for us as a program.”

Heupel emphasized the importance of getting the top two players in the state, Carter and edge rusher Caleb Herring. Again, both are defensive guys, which helps with where his focus was.

As for Carter, Heupel referred to him as athletic, smart and competitive. He also touted Carter’s maturity based on the questions he was asking through the process.

“He pays attention to details,” Heupel said. “You can notice that from the questions he’s asking about a previous game that we played, also the way that he prepared for games that he was going to play.”

Herring joins Chandavian Bradley and Daevin Hobbs as the key edge rushers Tennessee football signed. Tyree Weathersby and Nathan Robinson have the sizes to potentially play outside on the defensive line, but those are the three key pickups.

All of them are four-stars who bring much-needed depth to that position for the Vols. While they do have talent there, they need to go two-deep. Heupel said building a program starts up front with players like them.

“We’re not starting from scratch, but that’s the quickest way to affect the game, affect the way the game is played defensively,” he said. “It changes the entire scope of the game in all three phases. Those guy are all high level athletes. A lot of them play multiple sports, they’re explosive.”

There were also five defensive backs who signed. It’s no surprise that three of them are cornerbacks, and they just so happen to be the three highest rated players of the five.

Jordan Matthew, Rickey Gibson and Cristian Conyer are the cornerbacks. All five defensive backs are already enrolled, and Heupel noted that they are already standing out too.

“Without intentionally trying to watch them, they would pop out,” he said. “You notice their athleticism, their ability to play balls, to be in great body positions. They’re going to continue to grow fundamentally, but as a skill guy coming in on the defensive side of the ball, their ability to blend right into what we’re doing has been really impressive from all of those guys. You look at the corner position for us this year, the injuries that we’ve had, the lack of depth, it will be important for all of those guys to learn quickly and be ready to go compete by the time we hit the grass in spring ball.”

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