While Tennessee football soared to new heights on offense in 2023, there were times in which the Vols’ defense was just trying to survive. For the most part, it was able to do just that.
It’s not a surprise that the Vols had struggles on defense in 2022 considering the previous coaching staff left few solid defenders in place when they departed with their defensive mindset. While most offensive players remained at Tennessee during the coaching transition from Jeremy Pruitt to Josh Heupel, a much higher ratio of defensive players left in 2021 due to the uncertainty of the program and, for many, an allegiance to Pruitt, who had a defensive foundation, unlike his successor.
That transition led to plenty of holes to fill in 2021 and continued personnel issues in 2022. Obviously, the Vols’ 11-2 record is proof that Tennessee football overcame many of those issues. However, it’s fair to say that the Vols’ defense under Heupel is still a work in progress.
Here is how they graded out on that side of the ball in 2022.
Defensive Line: B
It may surprise many college football analysts to know that the Vols’ rush defense was second in the SEC, allowing just 115.8 yards on the ground per game. Now, that was of course affected by the Vols’ opponents, who often had to pass in order to overcome a scoring deficit presented by the offense. However, there’s no shame in finishing only behind Georgia, who ended up winning the national championship.
Tennessee’s linebackers, as well as its defensive line, had to play vertical and force opposing offenses into a bad positions because the Vols just simply couldn’t line up and match up. That meant the Vols were second in the SEC in tackles for a loss with just over seven per game in the conference. However, the Vols’ second level struggled in pass protection throughout the season. Tennessee’s defense was completely lost when it had to play without linebacker Jeremy Banks, who was suspended for the South Carolina game.
Defensive Backs: D
The Vols were 12th in the SEC in pass defense, and it didn’t take a long look at them to determine that they were outmanned for most of the season. Tennessee football tried different looks and different players but were just outclassed for the vast majority of the season. UT’s already challenged players also seemed to suffer with fundamentals, which will need to be addressed soon.
Overall Defensive Grade: C+
There was plenty of angst in Knoxville about the Vols’ defense and rightly so. It seemed as if a blown play, especially in the secondary, was always on the horizon. However, the Vols’ defense deserves credit for games against Pittsburgh, Kentucky, Missouri, Vanderbilt and Clemson in which they more than held their own.