It’s not surprising that Tennessee’s defense seemed to win the day in the Vols’ scrimmage on Saturday. Anything else would have been incredibly disconcerting.
Defenses are usually ahead of offenses in the early portions of spring camp and often in the early portions of preseason camp. That’s just the nature of the game. Defenses can go out and play. Offenses need chemistry. Moreover, the Vols have been a bit hamstrung recently, which means their defense has been chasing the Vols’ offense since Josh Heupel became Tennessee’s head coach two years ago. The latest coaching change to bring Heupel in robbed the Vols of the talent that their best teams have been accustomed to.
More so, the Vols are replacing a list of top contributors to the 2022 squad: a generational quarterback in Hendon Hooker, two highly rated NFL receiver prospects in Cedric Tillman and Jalin Hyatt, their best offensive lineman in almost a decade in Darnell Wright and a tight end in Princeton Fant that made a Swiss Army knife look useless last year.
If Tennessee’s defense wasn’t ahead of the Vols’ offense at this point in spring practice, that would be cause for concern. That, fortunately for Tennessee football fans, is not the case.
“I thought they tackled well, were disruptive at the line of scrimmage, had good pressure on the quarterback and third-down defense was really good,” Heupel said after the Vols’ seventh practice and first scrimmage of spring camp. “They found a way to get off the field. Lineman assignment, execution and energy from the guys on the field but also guys on the sidelines too. It was very noticeable during the course of the scrimmage.”
Tennessee’s defense will likely be better sooner rather than later. The Vols have another year of experience and some talented incoming players. Sure, Tennessee lost some key contributors, like EDGE rusher Byron Young and defensive lineman LaTrell Bumphus, but as a whole, the Vols should be improved.
Led by defensive coordinator Tim Banks, the Vols relied on an attack-first-and-think-later defense last season. Tennessee had to disguise pass rush schemes with twists and stunts because its talent wasn’t up to par. That talent level is rising, but the approach doesn’t seem to be changing. Playing upfield, creating game-changing plays and causing havoc are still the goals.
The Vols could be less aggressive on defense with more talent. Theoretically, a team doesn’t need to blitz as often if they’re solid in the secondary, which Tennessee has not been under Heupel. Following Saturday’s scrimmage, it’s clear that the attacking philosophy won’t change. The Vols are going to be aggressive. They did it last year to overcome deficiencies. They may have to do it this year to overcome a rebuilt offense. Saturday was a step in the right direction.
“Their ability to get off the field,” Heupel said when asked what stood out about the Vols’ defense. “I thought they tackled well. They were disruptive at the line of scrimmage, had good pressure on the quarterback and third-down defense was really good. They found a way to get off the field. Lineman assignment, execution and energy from the guys on the field, but also guys on the sidelines too. It was very noticeable during the course of the scrimmage.”
That’s good for Heupel and the Vols. Tennessee can’t expect to have the top offense in the SEC every season. And even with an explosive offense, the Vols need a defense that can hold its muster, particularly against the pass, in which the Vols ranked 12th in the SEC last season, allowing 289 yards passing per game.
“Pass defense is all three levels,” Heupel said. “I think it’s important that everybody in our program, but also on the outside, understands that too. We’re deeper in the secondary. As long as we stay healthy, there’s a chance for these guys to grow fundamentally, technique and then scheme-understanding that can help make us a lot better as we get to the fall.
“There’s real competition there which forces these guys to compete every day—on the field, in the meeting room and everything that they’re doing. Our second level has gotten better dropping in coverage and in our zone principles, playing off the quarterback’s eyes and making plays in the middle of the field. You’ve also got to be able to rush and affect the quarterback.”
A solid defense may not be as exciting as Tennessee’s offense was last season. However, there’s nothing more exciting than winning championships and the Vols’ defense wasn’t good enough to do that in 2022.