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VOL. 39 | NO. 35 | Friday, August 28, 2015

Despite personnel losses, UT’s defense should be much-improved

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Senior outside linebacker Curt Maggitt is a preseason All-SEC selection after leading the Vols in sacks last season with 11. He also recorded 15 tackles for loss, ranking second on the team behind Derek Barnett.

-- Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

John Jancek begins his third season as Tennessee’s defensive coordinator under head coach Butch Jones, and thanks to two solid recruiting classes should have his best defense with the Vols.

UT is bigger and faster on the defensive side than the previous two seasons, when the Vols showed improvement from the 2012 season by shaving more than 100 yards and 11 points per game allowed.

Of course, the Vols need to be better to contend for an SEC East title.

UT’s defense ranked ninth in the SEC last season in points per game allowed (23.9) and eighth in yards allowed (359.9). The Vols were fifth in the SEC in pass defense (197.8 yards per game) and 10th in rush defense (162.1) in the regular season.

Eight starters return from the 2014 defense, but the three starters that are gone were big losses, none more than middle linebacker A.J. Johnson, a two-time All-SEC player.

There is ample talent returning and at least a couple of impact players joining UT’s defense.

Senior linebacker Curt Maggitt was on the All-SEC preseason first team, while sophomore linebacker Derek Barnett and junior defensive back Cameron Sutton were on the second team. Junior linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin has the makings of an All-SEC player and was chosen to the All-SEC preseason second team by Lindy’s magazine.

True freshmen Kahlil McKenzie, Shy Tuttle, Kyle Phillips and Darrin Kirkland Jr. should play key roles on the defense, along with junior college transfer Justin Martin.

Jancek has been encouraged by his defense during fall camp.

“I think collectively we’re playing really good team defense,” he says. “It’s not just one guy. It’s a culmination of all their efforts. They really communicate at a pretty high level, better than we have had since we’ve been here.

“It seems like they’re pretty comfortable with everything. It looks like they’re in a good rhythm. It’s been positive up to this point. We still have a lot of work to do. Overall, as a group, they’ve played well together.”

Jancek installed a 4-3 base defense two years ago – replacing a 3-4 base alignment – but UT will more often line up in a 4-2-5 nickel defense with five defensive backs (three cornerbacks, two safeties) against spread offenses.

Here’s a look at the Vols’ 2015 defense, along with their kickers.

Defensive Line

UT has a chance to be as good up front as last year – or possibly better – despite the loss of starting nose guard Jordan Williams, who battled through injuries and had a solid senior season. He started all 13 games and finished with 27 tackles and two sacks.

Why might the D-Line be better?

The Vols’ only other losses to the unit were Dewayne Hendrix and Michael Sawyers, both of whom opted to transfer. Both played in one game in 2014 and had two tackles. Both were freshmen.

UT added impact freshmen in McKenzie of Clayton Valley Charter High in Walnut Creek, Calif., and Tuttle of North Davidson High in Midway, N.C.

Their addition will help the Vols move toward a D-line rotation that can match other units in the SEC.

“I think we’re getting closer,” Jancek says. “That’s being honest. An 18- to 19-year-old defensive tackle going in there and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to go in there and beat up on 21-, 22-year-old guys that play in the SEC,’ is probably not realistic, but to say we’ve made progress, certainly we can all agree to that.”

Defensive end Barnett, a former Brentwood Academy standout, was a freshman All-American in 2014 and is with the No. 1 defense in both the 4-3 base and nickel/dime packages. He set UT freshman records for tackles for loss (20.5) and sacks (10) last season.

Barnett is poised for an All-SEC sophomore season.

“Derek is an individual who works his craft every day and studies the game every day,” explains Jones. “He plays with a lot of passion and a lot of energy. He has worked on his repertoire.”

Senior Maggitt, undoubtedly the leader of UT’s defense, starts at outside linebacker in the base defense and plays defensive end when the Vols are in the nickel package.

Senior defensive linesman/linebacker Chris Weatherd, will be depended on as a pass rusher for the Vols this season.

-- Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

Maggitt, of Dwyer High in West Palm Beach, Fla., is a four-year starter and was on the All-SEC second team in 2014.

He sat out the 2013 season with a medical redshirt, and returned last year to lead the Vols in sacks (11) and had 15 tackles for loss, second only to Barnett.

Senior Chris Weatherd, juniors Corey Vereen and LaTroy Lewis and sophomore DiMarya Mixon are candidates at end when Maggitt moves to outside linebacker.

Vereen has experience on his side with 11 starts at left defensive end in 2014, but he managed only four tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.

Weatherd played in all 13 games (one start) and had 12 tackles, three tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks in 2014 as a transfer from Trinity Valley (Texas) Community College.

Lewis played little as a freshman in 2013 after a redshirt season, and last year he played in 13 games (one start) and had eight tackles, five tackles for loss, and one sack.

Phillips, a five-star recruit out of Nashville Hillsboro High, will be a newcomer to watch at end, along with four-star end Darrell Taylor of Hopewell High in Waverly, Va.

Phillips, son of Tennessee State athletic director Teresa Phillips, was a January enrollee but missed spring practice after undergoing shoulder surgery not long after he enrolled at UT.

Still, Phillips made an early impression on Jones and Janzek in fall camp.

“I know we are all excited about Kyle Phillips, just his work ethic, his attitude, his demeanor, his style of play,” Jones says. He continues to get better and better.”

On the interior, fourth-year junior Danny O’Brien of Flint, Mich., Powers Catholic High played in 13 games with 12 starts at nose tackle in 2014. He came on strong during the later stages with 15 tackles in the last five games and eight in the first eight games.

Fifth-year senior Owen Williams has a chance to move into a starter’s role at Jordan Williams’ vacant spot. Williams played in 12 games last year and had 21 tackles and two sacks in his first year with the Vols after transferring from Butler (Kan.) Community College.

Defensive lineman/linebacker Corey Vereen started 11 games for the Vols last season at left tackle with underwhelming numbers.

-- Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

“Owen’s moving so much better,” Jancek points out. “His conditioning is at a much higher level. The other thing is he’s not going to have to play as many snaps this year with the two young kids (McKenzie and Tuttle) being able to rotate in and give us some solid reps. It just takes a little more workload off him, so when he’s in there, he’s a higher-level player. He gets fewer reps and plays at higher level.”

Sophomore Kendal Vickers played sparingly last year (five games) after taking a redshirt year in 2013, but he had a good offseason and has been solid in fall camp.

Vickers should be in line for more snaps this year.

“This offseason was really big for (Vickers),” Jancek adds. “He’s gotten a lot stronger. He’s also a lot more flexible in the hips. He’s able to stay low and win leverage at the line of scrimmage. He’s a load in there right now. He’s really worked hard. I’m really proud of Kendal for what he’s been able to do the last two years.”

Mixon, who originally signed with Nebraska in 2013, was in the defensive line rotation in 2014 as a true freshman out of West Mesquite (Texas) High School. He played in 12 games as a backup to Williams at tackle last season and had four tackles in 12 games.

Four-star recruit Darrell Taylor of Hopewell High in Waverly, Va., needs to add some muscle – he’s listed at 6-4, 228 pounds. Another potential contributor will be redshirt freshman Charles Mosley of Brighton High. Mosley is 6-5, 370 pounds.

“You can never have enough depth, particularly up front,” Jones says. “That can change on one play, but we do have a luxury at the defensive end position that we have never had since we’ve been here. These individuals continue to grow and develop. They are playing with a lot of confidence.

Fifth-year senior Owen Williams (58) and defensive lineman Curt Maggitt (56) during last year’s win against Vanderbilt.

-- Randy Sartin/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

“Now we need to get that same kind of depth at the defensive tackle position as well, but as we all know, in this conference you can never have enough. We talk about the power of the position and being nine strong.”

Linebackers

UT’s biggest hole from the 2014 defense was left by Johnson’s departure.

Johnson, a starter since his freshman season, tied for the team lead in tackles (101) despite playing only 10 games.

The No. 1 middle linebacker job was still open three weeks into fall camp with a three-player competition among sophomore Colton Jumper, Kirkland Jr., and junior Kenny Bynum.

Bynum was the starter in the TaxSlayer Bowl victory against Iowa, but played in only three games and finished with five tackles.

Sophomore Jakob Johnson started the last two games of the regular season at middle linebacker. He moved to tight end early in fall camp.

Jumper, who played at Baylor School in Chattanooga, played in only one game last year.

Kirkland Jr. is a four-star recruit out of Lawrence Central High in Indianapolis.

Jancek knows it’s a critical position to fill.

“(Middle linebacker) is the quarterback of the defense,” Jancek explains. “He sets the front. He does all the directional (calls), pressures, things of that nature. He’s paramount in getting us lined up, getting us on the same page.”

Sophomore Dillon Bates was competing for the middle linebacker job early in camp and is now vying for a backup’s role.

The Vols are settled at the other two linebackers’ spots in the 4-3 base defense with Maggitt and junior Reeves-Maybin at outside linebackers.

Reeves-Maybin, who played at Clarksville’s Northeast High, started all 13 games last year and tied with Johnson for the team lead in tackles (101). He had 11 tackles for loss, third-best on the team in 2014.

Others in the hunt for time at linebacker are sophomores Cortez McDowell and Elliott Berry and freshmen Quart’e Sapp and Austin Smith.

McDowell played in all 13 games on special teams in 2014 and led the team with 14 special teams tackles.

Kicker Aaron Medley earned his starting role with a strong freshman season in which hs was successful on 19 of 20 attempts from inside 40 yards.

-- Craig Bisacre/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

Berry, whose twin brother Evan plays in the secondary, played in eight games as a true freshman on special teams and linebacker, but finished with no tackles.

Sapp is a four-star recruit out of Milton High in Alpharetta, Ga., and Smith is a three-star recruit out of Buford (Ga.) High.

Secondary

This unit took a huge hit during the third week of practice when sophomore defensive back Rashaan Gaulden suffered a broken bone in his foot and will be out for the season.

Gaulden, a three-star prospect out of Independence High in Spring Hill was set to start at nickel back. One of the team’s hardest hitters, Gaulden played in 11 games last season as a true freshman – mostly on special teams – but an outstanding offseason and spring put him as the No. 1 nickel back.

How important is the nickel position? Last year, then-senior Justin Coleman started seven games at nickel back, played in all but one game, and finished with 42 tackles. Coleman led the Vols in interceptions with four.

With Gaulden out, UT will rely heavily on junior-college transfer Justin Martin, a four-star recruit out of out of Northeast Oklahoma A&M. Martin, who played at Nashville Overton High, returned this week from a knee injury that kept him out of camp for about a week.

“It’s big to get Justin back,” Jones says. “He was starting to do some really, really good things before he went down (with the knee injury).”

One option UT has is to move Sutton to nickel back, but Sutton is one of the SEC’s top cornerbacks so the move would be costly.

The 6-1, 190-pound Sutton started all 13 games in 2014 and had 35 tackles, four for losses, and the team-high 14 pass deflections. Sutton also started all 12 games at cornerback as a true freshman out of Jonesboro (Ga.) High School.

Other options at nickel back are junior Malik Foreman, freshman Micah Abernathy, and sophomore Emmanuel Moseley.

Moseley likely will be on the field somewhere, either at corner or nickel back.

“Emmanuel is playing with a lot of confidence right now,” Jones says. “He’s doing a great job. With the addition of his weight, he continues to take care of his body. He’s been really competitive. He’s got great length for a corner, which you want.”

Sophomore Evan Berry could be in line for more snaps. Berry, who played in 13 games as a backup defensive back and kick returner, can play safety or nickel back.

Starting safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil return after combining for 164 tackles last year.

Also returning is sophomore Todd Kelly Jr., former all-state player at Knoxville Webb.

Randolph, a fifth-year senior, started 11 of 13 games – nine at strong safety and two at free safety – and was third in the SEC in tackles by a defensive back (88) and tackles per game (6.8). He started all 12 games at strong safety in 2013.

McNeil, a senior, started all but one game last year – 11 at free safety and the season opener at strong safety – and has started 31 of the Vols’ last 32 games. He started the last seven games of 2012 as a true freshman out of Wilmer-Hutchins High in Dallas.

Kelly, who was on the All-SEC freshman team, started seven games and played in all 13, finishing with 33 tackles and three interceptions.

Special Teams

Sophomore Aaron Medley holds down the field-goal/PAT duties after an outstanding season as a true freshman out of Marshall County High in Lewisburg.

Medley was 19 of 20 on field-goal attempts from inside 40 yards, and 1 of 6 from beyond. His 20 field goals made ranked second in the SEC and tied for 14th nationally. He made 42 of 43 PAT kicks.

“We have really challenged him to increase his accuracy from a long distance,” Jones says. “He has been able to do that.”

UT went into camp looking for a punter to replace Matt Darr, and a three-player race continued into the third week among Trevor Daniel, Tommy Townsend, and Nate Renfro.

Daniel is a sophomore walk-on from Dickson County High. Townsend is a freshman from Boone High in Orlando, Fla., and Renfro is a senior transfer from Maryland who played high school ball for Brentwood Academy.

“All three punters are doing a very good job right now,” Jones notes. “I think all of them have taken great strides moving forward. … I like the way they’re pushing each other.”

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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