What The Tennessee Defense Must Do Better In 2022

The Vols surprised most people in Josh Heupel's first season, but many believe that the Tennessee Defense left a few wins on the field.

Josh Heupel‘s first season at Tennessee was record-breaking on both sides of the ball. Unfortunately, for the defense, those records weren’t the type you celebrate. The Vols surprised most people with a 7-6 record in 2021, Heupel’s first year. But most people, fans and analysts alike, felt like the Vols left a few wins on the table. And the numbers support that theory. So, if the Vols are to continue to climb the ladder in the Southeastern Conference, what must the Tennessee Defense do better in 2022?

What The Tennessee Defense Must Do Better In 2022

The Good News

The good news is that the Tennessee defense can’t have a much worse statistical season than 2021. Of 130 FBS teams, the Vols placed 98th in Total Defense, 103rd in Third Down Conversions, 112th in 20+ Yard Plays Surrendered, 121st in Passing First Downs, 122nd in Passing Yards, and 129th in Total Plays. For Tennessee to start competing at the highest levels again, the defense must get significantly better.

Additionally, the improved individual play last season, especially with tackling and coverage, and discipline on the defensive side of the ball, indicates quality coaching. The 2021 defense, while not performing well statistically, looked materially improved in their tackling form and in their secondary coverage techniques.

Lastly, the Vols should be facing a slightly lower quality of offenses in 2022. Pittsburgh lost Kenny Pickett and Jordan Addison. Florida is installing a new offense. So is LSU, who takes the spot that Lane Kiffin and Matt Corral occupied on the schedule last season. South Carolina is the only team on the schedule who should have a significantly stronger offense in 2022.

Another Year

Contrary to conventional wisdom, implementing a new defense is actually harder than implementing a new offense. Offensive players and coaches dictate the action; defensive players have to react to what the offense is doing. So having a second year in Defensive Coordinator Tim Banks‘ scheme will benefit the Volunteers tremendously.

Don’t let the pass rush and tackle-for-loss success fool you, Banks called games very conservatively in 2021. Opponents took advantage of that in converting third downs and keeping drives alive. With another year in the system for the players, Banks should be more aggressive in the defensive play calling this season. He can complement a talented pass rush from Tyler Baron and Byron Young and aggressive outside linebacker play from Jeremy Banks with more aggressive defensive play calling. This will help the Tennessee defense get off the field sooner in 2022.

And that’s the single biggest thing that Banks’ defense must do in 2022. For the Vols to take another step, the third down defense absolutely must be better, but orders of magnitude. Teams just gashed the Vols on third downs in 2021. The intermediate passing game – targeting linebackers in coverage

Offensive Assistance

One of the common refrains about the Tennessee defense’s struggles in 2021 was centered on the up-tempo pace of the offense. But that’s not really the issue. Heupel’s offense is what it is, and if it is not moving fast, it’s not going to be effective. Where the offense hurt the defense last season was with its second-half play. Tennessee scored 59% of its points in the first half of 2021. After halftime, when defenses should be more tired, the Vols offense lagged behind in both plays, yards, first downs, and points.

The Vols offense scored 10 or fewer points in the second half four times last season, including being shut out at Florida.

To help the Tennessee defense, the Vols offense doesn’t need to go slower in the second half. They just simply need to be better.

Depth, Depth, Depth

It’s important to note that opposing defenses were able to be successful against Tennessee in the second half of games last season, even against the Vols lightning-fast offense. For the Tennessee defense to have success in 2022, it has to build depth in all three position groups.

Only 40 defensive players registered a single tackle for Tennessee last season. The Tennessee defense must have second-line players that play significant time and find success against top-tier opponents. In addition to Baron, Young, Omari Thomas, and Greg Emerson, the Vols will have to get immediate assistance from freshman Tyre West, the second highest-rated player from the 2022 recruiting class, on the defensive front.

In the linebacking corps, Texas transfer Juwan Mitchell returns from injury and Georgia Tech transfer Wesley Walker must be able to spell Aaron Beasley at the middle spot.

And in the secondary, the Vols must figure out how to keep teams from gashing them in the passing game. They’ll have to replace their two best players from 2021. This is where the difference between 7-6 and 9-4 will be for the Vols.

The Tennessee Defense in 2022

There’s little doubt that the Tennessee defense will be better in 2022. The question is how much better will they be? The depth is still the biggest personnel issue. And the jury is still out on second-half adjustments.

But with the additional year under their belt and a few additional players contributing, the Tennessee defense shouldn’t leave any wins on the field this season.

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