While most of the talk at spring practice focused on the quarterback position, it’s the Tennessee Volunteer defense that will determine whether the Vols return to the postseason in 2013. Even though it won’t lead the pack in a league loaded with elite defenses, UT’s much-improved D will have it in position to qualify for a bowl game this year.
There’s no way to sugarcoat it: the Volunteer defense was one of the worst in the SEC last year. It surrendered over 400 yards in 10 of 12 contests last season, allowing an average of over 490 yards per game in conference play. As a result, the defense finished no higher than 12th in the SEC in any major statistical category.
As badly as things went a year ago, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the 2013 campaign.
Make no mistake about it: new defensive coordinator John Jancek is one of the brightest defensive minds in the game today. Although he had successful stints while coaching the Grand Valley State Lakers, Central Michigan Chippewas and Georgia Bulldogs, Jancek made a lasting impression when he took over as the defensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bearcats. Under his leadership, the 2011 UC defense was one of the best in the country, ranking first nationally in tackles for a loss, second in quarterback sacks, sixth in rushing defense and ninth in turnover margin.
More importantly, he helped the Bearcats improve from a 4-8 record to a 10-3 mark that season, which included a bowl victory over the Vanderbilt Commodores.
There’s no reason to think that he can’t do something similar with the Volunteer defense. After all, UT returns eight starters from last season’s squad, including AJ Johnson, who led the SEC in tackles a year ago. With the emergence of 377-pound Daniel McCullers in the middle, teams won’t be able to pound the ball right at the Volunteer defense like they did in 2012.
In addition, the Tennessee secondary will be much better this season. Sure, they struggled at times last year, but the Volunteers lost safety Brian Randolph against the Florida Gators, and never really recovered from it. Now that he’s back at 100%, the tandem of Randolph and Byron Moore — who led the SEC in interceptions last season — is arguably one of the top safety combinations in the country.
Will this much-improved defense lead to a bowl game in 2013?
It should. After losing three games by a touchdown or less, the Volunteers would have played in a bowl game last year with if they could have come up with a timely play in any of those contests. Considering the amount of bad luck that’s hit the program lately, UT is bound to catch a break at some point.