The Tennessee Vols (5-2) are off to the program’s best start since 2006. But, how has this Tennessee defense graded out in the first half of this season?
We give our midseason grades as the Vols head into the bye week. The defense is the final part of our three part series this week.
PART 1: Grades for the coaches.
PART 2: Grades for the offense.
The defensive line was Tennessee’s biggest strength coming into the season. The Vols were deep at both defensive end and tackle. Derek Barnett was considered one of the best players in the SEC, and senior Danny O’Brien had become a leader on the inside. Has this position group lived up to the preseason hype?
Derek Barnett has absolutely lived up to the hype. The junior has filled up the defensive box score with 32 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, six sacks, a forced fumble and an interception. Barnett does everything for this defense. He’s even broken up a pass 15 yards down the field in coverage against Texas A&M. If Barnett got a grade by himself it would be an A++.
Unfortunately for the Vols, there’s only one Derek Barnett. The defensive line has only three other sacks, outside of Barnett (Kendall Vickers – 1, Corey Vereen – 2). O’Brien started the year plying his best football, with three tackles for loss. But, O’Brien was dismissed from the team for a violation of team rules after the Texas A&M game. Sophomore Khalil McKenzie has been lost for the season (pectoral) and now the tackle rotation is very thin. Shy Tuttle has gotten better each week since returning from his broken leg from last October.
Vereen has been solid at the end opposite of Barnett. His two sacks are second on the team and he recovered a fumble for a touchdown in a big moment at Georgia. Fans are still waiting for the emergence of JUCO transfer Jonathan Kongbo. I would expect him to show up in the last five games and get his feet wet with a few sacks. LaTroy Lewis has battled nagging injuries and Kyle Phillips is expected to get more snaps in the second half of the year.
Tennessee has been missing its best two linebackers for about 80-percent of the season. Darrin Kirkland Jr. sprained his ankle in game two against Virginia Tech. He’s expected to return against South Carolina. But, captain Jalen Reeves-Maybin ended his season with shoulder surgery to repair his injury that occurred against Ohio. How have the reserves filled in?
If this was an effort grade it would be much higher. Injuries haven’t hit just the starters at linebacker. Bad luck has gone deep into the depth chart. Elliot Berry made his first start against Alabama and the Vols fourth stringer was exposed. Colton Jumper has played well in moments, but will always lack the premiere athletic ability against SEC offenses.
Alabama and Texas A&M gashed the Vols with the quarterback run. The good news is Kirkland and Cortez McDowell will be back from injury soon. Those two add much needed speed to the second level of the defense that has been missing.
Tennessee hasn’t recruited enough linebackers in recent years, but talent has been brought to the roster. Dillion Bates has been absent in his UT career, thus far. Quarte Sapp tore his ACL against Ohio. That is killing this depth right now. The Vols will call upon freshman Daniel Bituli in the final five games of the year. Might as well get the kid some reps.
Another level of the defense that’s missing its best player. All-SEC cornerback Cam Sutton fractured his ankle in week three. Sutton is hoping to return at some point in November. The Vols do have lots of numbers in the secondary, when it comes to bodies. But, Sutton isn’t the only guy to miss playing time.
A pleasant surprise for the secondary has been safety Micah Abernathy. The sophomore is fourth on the team with 34 tackles and recovered was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week for recovering three fumbles against Virginia Tech. Abernathy did tweak a hamstring late against Alabama and it will be interesting to learn the severity of the injury.
Todd Kelly Jr. is the leading tackler overall and the junior also leads the team with two interceptions. Kelly is not the fastest safety in the SEC but he’s made plays for the Vols. I thought his second half against Florida was the best half he’s played in a Tennessee uniform.
Cornerback has been a mixed bag, without Sutton. Malik Foreman has had game saving moments, but has also been prone to giving up big plays. Emmanuel Moseley struggled early in the season with pass interference penalties, but has improved throughout the season. Freshman Baylen Buchanan has looked like a promising prospect, yet still looks like a freshman with up and down play. Justin Martin has been demoted and is no longer a factor.