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Is there one position that could cause Tennessee’s defense to stumble?

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James Pearce lined up on the edge, dropped into coverage, drifted to his right, picked off a pass and returned it 52 yards for a touchdown.

Pearce’s versatility was on display as he added a pick-six to his resume during Tennessee’s 35-0 rout of Iowa in the Florida Citrus Bowl.

Pearce is not only Tennessee’s best defensive player, he might be the best defender in the SEC. He will likely be a high first-round pick in the 2025 NFL draft.

Pearce led Tennessee last season with 10 sacks, 14.5 tackles for loss, 16.5 quarterback hurries and the highlight reel interception against Iowa.

Pearce spearheaded a defense that ranked among the top four in the SEC in points allowed, total defense, rush yards allowed, sacks and tackles for loss.

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Despite UT having an up-tempo offense that at times put the defense in harm’s way, defensive coordinator Tim Banks pitched a shutout and held five other teams to 14 or fewer points.

Can the defense improve on those numbers? Or even match those numbers?

Bill Connelly of ESPN punched numbers that say UT returns only 58% of its defensive production, which ranks 66th in the nation.

A deeper dive tells you Tennessee lost five of its top six tacklers, 16.5 of its 36 sacks and nine of its 10 interceptions. It lost its second-leading tackler, its second-leading sacker and seven scholarship defensive backs to the transfer portal.

That could spell trouble for Banks’ unit that allowed only 20.3 points, 113.7 rushing yards and 335.2 total yards per game last year.

But a closer look suggests UT might be just as good on defense – maybe better.

Pearce isn’t the only accomplished defensive linemen returning. Fifth-year senior Omari Thomas is one of the best defensive tackles in the SEC. Defensive tackle Omarr Norman-Lott was third on the team with 5.5 sacks and has NFL potential. He’s a better inside pass rusher than Thomas. Tackle Bryson Eason has immense talent. Tackler Elijah Simmons is a road-block. Tackle Tyre West was disruptive in the Citrus Bowl with 1.5 sacks.

End Joshua Josephs had three sacks and has barely scratched the surface of his potential. End Daevin Hobbs is a budding star. End Caleb Herring was a hot-shot recruit.

Tennessee’s defensive line is deep and talented.

The linebacking group was average last season. It could improve with the return of sixth-year senior Keenan Pili, the BYU transfer who suffered a torn bicep in last year’s season opener.

Elijah Herring led the team in tackles with 80 last year. Arion Carter is a talent who should improve with another year in the system. Jeremiah Telander was seventh on the team in tackles last year despite being a freshman and playing limited snaps. Kalib Perry is a decent backup.

The linebacker room should be as good or better than 2023.

The secondary is the biggest question mark. The departure of eight defensive backs (seven to the transfer portal) sounds like a huge concern. But that group allowed opponents to complete 65.2% of their passes for 221.5 pass yards per game. Four teams passed for at least 260 yards.

Pass coverage has been a multiyear problem. So maybe fresh bodies like Jourdan Thomas, Rickey Gibson, Jordan Matthews, Andre Turrentine, John Slaughter, Christian Charles, Cristian Conyer, Christian Harrison and Will Brooks will fare better. Can’t be any worse.

With the returning players, Tennessee’s defense could again rank among the top four in the SEC in points allowed, rush yards allowed, total defense and sacks.

But whether the defense improves overall will depend greatly on the play of the secondary.

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