After earning much of the media headlines during training camp, Tennessee’s defense was the top talking point coming out of the Vols’ 49-13 season-opening victory over Virginia on Saturday afternoon in Nashville.
The Vols showed off an aggressive, talkative defense that flew around the field and went after the football. Tennessee recorded four sacks, 11 tackles for loss, and five passes deflected during the win.
Tennessee’s defensive line was particularly impressive. One of the things that was talked about by the players and coaches during media day this past summer was the desire to be able to attack the quarterback with only four players, thus not having to officially dial up a blitz. While Virginia’s defense isn’t up to the caliber of most SEC competition, Tennessee’s package of Roman Harrison, Tyler Baron, Omarr Norman-Lott, and James Pearce Jr. was quite effective at putting pressure on the quarterback.
Tennessee’s tenacity on defense even shocked Virginia on Saturday. Cavaliers’ head coach Tony Elliott spoke about the Vols’ defense line during his press conference on Tuesday after being asked about his offensive line’s performance.
“Lot of respect for coach Heupel, Tennessee, and what they’ve been able to do over the last couple years,” Elliott said on Tuesday. “I think the speed and the depth, right, kind of shocked us a little bit. Just because it’s hard to simulate that on our practice field. I think once the shock wore off, the guys kind of settled in.”
Tennessee’s coaching staff talked about the rotation that would be present in the first couple of games of the season and did just that during the first week against Virginia. The Vols had 10 different defensive linemen record at least one tackle in the game including Omarr Norman-Lott, Daevin Hobbs, Tyler Baron, James Pearce Jr., Omari Thomas, Roman Harrison, Joshua Josephs, Bryson Eason, Tyre West, and Jayson Jenkins.
“They did a good job and they were rolling them,” Elliott said about Tennessee’s rotation. “They had a lot of depth and so their depth was fresh whereas our depth, you know, we didn’t have that to be able to roll in and combat it.”
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Despite Virginia claiming the possession battle at 32:54 compared to Tennessee’s 27:06, the Cavs’ defense was forced to work hard to keep up with the Vols. Virginia’s defense recorded 78 tackles compared to the 60 tackles that Tennessee needed in order to win the game.
The Virginia offense being “shocked” at the Vols’ defensive presence early on matches up with Tennessee defensive coordinator Tim Banks saying that he felt the energy was at a good spot heading into the game.
“I thought, number one, the guys were excited to play,” Banks said on Tuesday. “Obviously, we had a good camp, but it was obviously a long camp. We had kind of been building this thing for a while, just the overall excitement. I thought the overall intensity that is required to play great defense was there. I thought the guys were really intent on doing their job and straining. Third, it was great to be able to get multiple guys opportunities on the field. Every rep is so valuable. Those reps that some of those younger guys got we believe will pay great dividends later.”
No. 9 Tennessee will host Austin Peay at 5:00 p.m. ET on Saturday afternoon in Neyland Stadium.