The weak side cornerback job appears to be in the capable hands of Jabari Greer, a three-year veteran and two-year starter who saw significant duty as a true freshman out of Jackson Southside High School. Greer missed spring workouts in order to compete in track where he emerged as one of the country's top hurdlers.
No doubt Greer has the speed and athletic ability to do more than an adequate job there, but the Vols need something more than above adequate this season. What Tennessee really needs is a lock down corner capable of taking the opponent's top receiving target out of play.
In order for Tennessee's aggressive defensive scheme to work, the Vols have to leave defensive backs in man coverage. This in turn provides the numerical advantage to utilize the blitz in order to pressure the passer. This is particularly true this season as the Vols return no starters in the defensive line. Without a D-Line proven capable of pressuring the quarterback on its own, the onus will fall on linebackers used in combination with stunts to harass the pass.
In 2001 with John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth at the tackles and Will Overstreet at defensive end, Tennessee could often collapse the pocket and disrupt the passing attack by way of Henderson and Haynesworth getting push up the middle. Possessing the capability of pressuring a QB without committing to the blitz allowed the Vols to use more zone and combination coverage in addition to zone blitzes.
When Tennessee won the national talent in 1998, it didn't have a dominating defensive line. In fact the D-line that year was devastated by injuries and without the services of Henderson who didn't qualify as a freshman. The Vols only had 31 sacks that season, but was able to keep pressure on the QB because corner Dwayne Goodrich had a standout junior season. His interception and touchdown return against Florida State was the key play in the Fiesta Bowl victory.
In the 1998 season, Tennessee allowed opponents to complete 52.5 percent of their passes and had 16 interceptions verses 12 touchdowns. In 1990 and 1991 UT's corner combo of Jeremy Lincoln and Floyd Miley allowed 48 percent completions and 22 touchdowns against 37 interceptions. This was accomplished despite the lack of a dominating defensive front. The added ingredient was having Dale Carter at safety both of those seasons, which gave the Vols a pair of outstanding cover men along with Lincoln. Shutdown a team's top two targets and even the so called high-percentage pass can become problematical.
In 1986 and 1987 with Terry McDaniel at corner (arguably the most talented cover man in UT history), the Vols held opponents to 48.8 and 48.9 completions, respectively, with 19 total TDS to 27 interceptions. In 1993, with a pair of talented cover corners in DeRon Jenkins and Ronald Davis, the Vols D surrendered just a 48.1 completion percentage and seven TDs passing against 18 interceptions.
Last year the trio of Julian Battle, Willie Miles and Greer held opponents to under 50 percent passing (49.3) for the first time since 1996 and recorded 12 INTs vs. 9 TDs. What's more the defense held opponents to a paltry 29 percent conversion rate on third down in what was otherwise a disappointing campaign.
Without veterans Battle and Miles this season, the Vols need Greer to step up his game and become a stopper at corner. What that entails is becoming more physical and aggressive. He has to belly up with the opponent's top pass-catching threat. He has to get in said opponent's face, his way and eventually his mind. Moreover, he has to have a short memory, understanding that such a task is ripe with risks and sometimes failure. However he can't let the occasional big play detour him from his duty or let it shatter his confidence.
If successful, he not only neutralizes a long-gain threat, he forces the quarterback to hold the ball longer and gives the line the split second that often separates a sack from an incompletion, or turns a potential big play into a throw away.
Sure most teams will have viable options at receiver, but quarterbacks tend to seek the target in which they are most confident, or have the best timing with, first. Short circuit this combo and you create frustration in addition to disrupting timing. Eventually, the quarterback will be tempted to force the ball to get his top target on track and the result is often turnovers.
If a second solid cover corner develops, say a Jason Allen, Robert Boulware or Stewart, the Vols defense can become dominating. Add perhaps the nation's top safety tandem in Rashad Baker and Gibril Wilson, and Tennessee is likely to force a lot of turnovers, too. More solutions arrive this fall in the form of Rashaun Fellows, an underrated cover talent, and JC transfer Brandon Johnson. Both Allen and Johnson have three years of eligibility remaining and each has the size to match up with big receivers. Also keep an eye on sophomore Jonathan Wade who, like McDaniels, has sprinter's speed and outstanding quickness. However, unlike McDaniels, who came to Tennessee as a receiver and was turned into a corner, Wade came to UT as a corner and was turned into receiver. The experiment made sense last year for an offense that needed a deep threat, but doesn't this year with a talented freshman class of wide receivers that only needs experience to get up to speed and with Mark Jones likely to see most of his reps on offense. If these untested elements fall into place, a Tennessee turnaround could be right around the corner.