Stokes’ Stance: What I Expect from the Tennessee Defense
There are a lot of differing opinions on what the Volunteer fan base expects from Team 117, the 2013 edition of Tennessee football. I put it out on Twitter and got anything from who cares as long as they are competitive to 10 wins and 2 losses. But I don’t want to talk in just generalities today; I want to get into some of the specifics for each side of the ball that I expect to see. And I’m not going to just leave this as a players only article either; there are things I expect from the coaching staff. So let’s dive right in.
This is the veteran unit for 2013. A lot of guys back that have some playing time under their belt including a lot of starters. Last year, Treece said that the defense had the most pressure. He was wrong and we all laughed. This year, there isn’t a more accurate statement to be made about Team 117. The defense will have to keep this team in games this season. I do not expect this offense to be able to score points in bunches, at least not early in SEC play, so the defense will have to do what they can to limit points. I fully expect them to do that.
It all starts with the front seven, specifically the defensive line, even more specifically Dan McCullers. I expect McCullers to have a break out season in his “money” year. This is his second and last season on rocky top and without a great year, he doesn’t get drafted high and some of the other players on defense do not either. This defense starts and stops with Big Dan. He has way to much size and athleticism not to be a dominant tackle. I fully expect him to live up to or at least come very close to his potential this season. When he plays angry in practice, Tennessee’s offensive line doesn’t have an answer for him. They are one of the best units in the country, so if they struggle with him then other o-lines will struggle with him. When he can crush the pocket, that makes it easier on the ends and linebackers which in turn makes it easier for the db’s to cover. I expect this to happen.
Having said that about McCullers, if he does his job it makes it easier for this linebacking corp to do theirs. A.J. Johnson has first round pick written all over him after this season if a couple of things happen. One, he has to clean up some technique and awareness issues. He has racked up an inordinate amount of tackles but a lot of those have been several yards past the line of scrimmage and because he wasn’t in the right place. Very few of his tackles have been “impact plays”. He hasn’t made a lot of plays in the backfield, batted balls, pass breakups etc. I expect that to change in 2013. I expect him to continue progressing as the vocal leader of this defense and to play like the All-SEC linebacker people think that he is. I expect his tackles for loss to go up and I expect him to play better in space. A lot of this will be because I think the coaches will put him in better position than what happened last year, but I’ll get to that later. Bottom line, if A.J. plays up to his potential, Brewer and Sapp do not have to be world beaters for this linebacking corp to finish near the top of the SEC. I expect them to surprise people and play very well, but they don’t have to be superstars if A.J. is doing his job like he is capable of.
I also expect Maggitt to play this season. I do not, however, expect him to be the same Curt Maggitt that he was in 2011 and the beginning of 2012. I think he may be a step slower because of the knee and turf toe injuries he is recovering from and because he has gotten bigger in the process. I do think that he can still be a very good linebacker this season and could be even better next season. I expect him to stay on campus past the 2013 year because that will do nothing but help his draft stock if he stays healthy.
Now on to what was a HUGE weakness last season. The defensive backs. This unit may be one of the most improved units from last season but still has a lot of work to do. I expect them to keep plays in front of them but I do expect some mistakes, especially at corner because of the youth. I expect Justin Coleman to be able to take away a portion of the field this season and play with great technique and start making impact plays. I expect Cam Sutton to get beat some but be able to make up for his freshman mistakes with his great speed and play making ability. On the back end, I expect Brian Randolph to start to make impact plays at the safety position. He has been steady when healthy, but was always a step or fingertip away from making huge plays that could swing a game. I expect that to change in 2013. I think in his RS Sophomore year, Randolph will become recognized as one of the better free safety’s in the SEC. I expect LaDarrell McNeil to finally be the head knocker that we saw in his high school highlight tape. I expect some rotation with him and Byron Moore, but I think the sophomore really steps up and show why he was so sought after coming out of the state of Texas. He has good speed and can hit, I expect to see him down in the box often and making plays.
Lastly, I expect these coaches to call defenses that fit their player’s strengths. I do not expect to see any square peg round hole situations that we saw over and over again last season. I expect to see a defense that gives up yards but not points. A defense that creates some meaningful turnovers and helps this offense out a lot. I do not expect the coaches to leave A.J. Johnson to cover the entire middle of the field by himself, or to leave the corners on islands they can’t defend because they bring the house every play. I expect this line to be able to get pressure with four because I expect McCullers to step up. I do not expect this defense to be tops in the SEC, but I do expect them to be a top 25 defense at season’s end. It will be a pleasant sight on The Hill to watch Team 117′s defense play.
I could go on and on about my expectations for this unit, but that covers the bulk of it. Next up is special teams.