Tennessee Football Working to an ‘Elite Defense’ On the Field

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    As a former championship-winning quarterback himself, Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel has always been an offensive savant when it comes to that side of the football. However, the Vols head coach has put an equal emphasis, if not a greater one, on the defensive side of the ball since his arrival in Knoxville.

    The Tennessee defense allowed 29.08 points per game in 2021, which fell all the way down to 90th in the country. Heupel knows that isn’t the standard, nor what he needs to be successful in this league. Nevertheless, Heupel and his staff have been working hard to bring in talent and develop them as quickly as possible.

    While appearing on Greg McElroy’s Always College Football podcast on Tuesday, Heupel explained his mindset and how he is feeling about the Tennessee defense moving forward.

    “Long-term?” Heupel said. “Playing just slightly better defense or average defense isn’t the standard here. This is the land of great defenses and great defensive players, too. As we continue to add players to our roster and develop the ones that are here, I know that with coach [Tim] Banks and our defensive staff, we’re going to play elite defense. There’s no question in my mind.”

    Prior to Heupel and his staff arriving at Tennessee, the Vols lost a considerable amount of players from Jeremy Pruitt’s 2020 roster. Key defensive names such as Henry To’o To’o and Quavaris Crouch wound up leaving the program in search of greener pastures.

    Although the Vols were left scrambling from the mass departures, Heupel and his staff were able to piece everything together in time for the season.

    “Last year, I didn’t talk about it very often, but we had 69 scholarship players,” Heupel said. “You look at, I think 27 guys that left before we got here in the transfer portal. I think 24 or 25 of them were starting somewhere else in college football – most of them in power five [conferences]. There were a lot of good players that left and there were a lot of them that left from the defensive side of the ball that were playing at other places.”

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    With the low number of players on the roster, Tennessee just naturally wasn’t going to have the depth that it would have liked to in year one. The Vols made it through the season, though, and all the while the staff had an eye on the future. Now, with depth less of an issue for Tennessee, training camp has mainly been about fixing the on-field mistakes last season.

    “For us, we weren’t as deep as we needed to be,” Heupel said. “Our kids understand that we have tried to develop that. They’ve got to still go earn it here in the back half of training camp and in the early part of the season. But we’re going to need to play more guys. We’ve got to get better in affecting the quarterback in third and long situations.”

    “You look at us, I think we led the country in tackles for loss up until maybe the last week of the season,” Heupel said. “We were in a bunch of third and long situations where if you’re going to play defensive football, that’s where you want to be. We’ve got to get off the field. That can be with your secondary being better in your coverages, some of that is understanding your scheme and year two in the system. But we’ve also got to be better at affecting the quarterback. Coach Garner does a great job with our defensive line, we’ve gotten better developed there.”

    Tennessee welcomed in several freshmen players on the defense that are oozing with raw football potential. However, at the same time, Tennessee is bringing in quite a few transfer players on the defensive side of the ball. While guys like Wesley Walker and Andre Turrentine do bring collegiate experience to the table, both players are still working to learn the system as quickly as possible.

    “We’ve added pieces, we’ve got some young guys in this program that got to grow here quickly before we get to kick off,” Heupel said. “They’re going to have to help us in those situations to go get the quarterback. Long term? I really feel strongly about who we have in the building and our ability to go play elite defense.”

    Tennessee will open the season on Thursday, Sept. 1 at 7:00 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.

    Ric Butler is a Knoxville based sports media personality who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since 2017. Most recently, he served as the lead writer for the website of a local radio station. Ric also helped create and host a daily radio show called “The Blitz." Ric’s passion for sports, smooth vocal, and infectious personality have made him popular with both his peers and Vol Nation. Originally from Dallas, Ric didn’t grow up riding horses to school. But he did dream of the big city lights. When not chasing down the latest Tennessee story, Ric can be found watching the WWE, often attempting their moves in an embarrassing fashion.