Vols Among the Most Experienced Defenses in SEC in 2017

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    When Vol fans look at who Tennessee lost on defense from the 2016 roster, they might expect that the Vols’ 2017 defense will be one of the least experienced units in the SEC this year. With players like Derek Barnett, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Cam Sutton, Corey Vereen, LaTroy Lewis, and Malik Foreman all gone, it would be easy to assume the Vols’ defense will be lacking proven production for this year.

    But according to the data, that isn’t the case at all for the Vols in 2017.

    All of those multi-year starters and contributors are gone for the Vols this upcoming season, that’s correct. But because of all the defensive injuries Tennessee sustained last year, many younger players got a chance to fill in and earn some experience. And that may pay off for the Vols this season.

    According to data gathered by college football statistician and analyst Phil Steele, the Vols are among the top teams in the SEC when it comes to the percent of tackles returning from their 2016 roster.

    Steele’s data shows that the Vols are returning exactly 75 percent of their tackling production from last season. That’s good enough for 23rd in the entire FBS and third in the SEC. Only Georgia (86.6 percent) and Kentucky (77.7 percent) return a larger percent of their tackling from last season in the conference.

    The Vols return their top five leading tacklers from last year’s team for this upcoming season. In fact, eight of the top nine leading tacklers from the Vols’ 2016 season are still on the roster for 2017. Derek Barnett, who was sixth on the team with 56 total tackles, is the only player in the top nine tacklers from last year who isn’t returning for this upcoming season.

    Steele’s data shows that, unlike Tennessee’s offense, the Vols have a fairly experienced defense returning in 2017. Overall the talent may not be quite as high as the roster last year, but that defensive roster in 2016 also suffered many injuries. A lot of those talented players missed large portions of the season or had season-ending injuries at some point. So injuries negated any talent advantage the 2016 unit might’ve had.

    But it’s because of those injuries that the Vols return so many players with playing experience from last year. What was a hindrance last year may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the Vols in 2017 if the defense can gel together and form a respectable unit.

    Nathanael Rutherford is the managing editor and social media manager for Rocky Top Insider. Nathanael graduated from the University of Tennessee and cultivated a passion for the Vols while growing up in Knoxville a mere 10 minutes from Neyland Stadium. He's been a part of the RTI team since November of 2015 and has been the editor of RTI since June of 2017. If he's not talking or writing about Tennessee athletics, he's probably talking about Star Wars.