Last week, we detailed who should get the starting nod for the Volunteers’ offense and what those players brought to the table.
This week, now that Tennessee has released its official depth chart for the season opener, let’s break down what the Vols’ defense will look like.
Up front, it all starts with former high four-star 6’3, 320-lb nose tackle Shy Tuttle for the Vols’ defensive line. Last season, Tuttle only registered 27 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss but with the introduction of the 3-4 defense, the former Under Armour All-American should have a breakout season. Book-ending Tuttle at the defensive end positions will be seniors Kyle Phillips and Alexis Johnson Jr. In terms of potential talent, Phillips may be the best defensive player for the Vols. As a 6’3, 273-lb pass rusher, the former five-star recruit tallied 35 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks in 2017 and should be even better this season. Johnson Jr., however, has zero starting experience and only came up with 14 tackles as a junior last season.
The verbiage may be different, but the Vols’ 3-4 defense will look similar to West Virginia’s on Saturday. Jeremy Pruitt wants to play an “aggressive style” of defense and he has the style of players to do so, including Jonathan Kongbo. A true freak-of-nature, the former five star recruit came to Knoxville as an outside linebacker but was delegated to the defensive line under former head coach Butch Jones. Now, though, he’ll slide out to the JACK linebacker spot and be tasked to rush the passer as well as drop in coverage: two items he’s more than capable of doing.
After announcing he’d leave Tennessee after the firing of Butch Jones and then renouncing that idea, Darrin Kirkland Jr. will suit up at the WILL linebacker spot for the Vols. When not fighting off the injury bug or pursuing another university, Kirkland Jr. is the typical, strong, fast inside linebacker Pruitt wants for his defense. Junior Daniel Bituli and redshirt junior Darrell Taylor will join Kirkland Jr. as the second line of defense for Tennessee. The combination of Bituli and Taylor registered 117 tackles, seven tackles for loss and three sacks in 2017.
Jeremy Pruitt cut his teeth as a cornerback at Alabama in the mid-’90s but that doesn’t make him a miracle worker and it certainly won’t turn his young and inexperienced secondary into superstars overnight. The Vols will start two true freshmen (Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson) and a junior with only six game under his belt in Baylen Buchanan at cornerback. Taylor, once a four-star wide receiver prospect, made the switch to corner during spring camp while Thompson came to Tennessee as a four-star athlete out of South Carolina.
There is a great deal of returning experience, however, at the two safety positions in junior Nigel Warrior and senior Micah Abernathy. Warrior and Abernathy started every game for the Vols last season, combining for 164 tackles, five pass breakups and four takeaways.