Spring step-up time for 5 Vol defenders

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For Tennessee football to get where it wants to go in 2014, it's imperative it plays considerably better defense.

In a line-of-scrimmage league like the Southeastern Conference, the Volunteers face an uphill climb needing to replace an entire defensive line of starters. On top of that, household changes are necessary after some of the worst nickel back play in recent history.

In 2013, the Vol defense that ranked No. 83 nationally in yards per game allowed (402.7) finished tied for 40th with 14 interceptions and was one of the worst teams in the country at generating sacks, registering just 18 sacks (five came in season finale versus Kentucky). Opponents converted 42.5 percent of third downs last year, which ranked the Vols at No. 91 in the country.

Trevarris Saulsberry must get healthy, and if he does, he could be a force at defensive tackle. The return of Curt Maggitt next to four-year linebacker starter A.J. Johnson give the Vols a talented and experienced second level. Brian Randolph played through two bad shoulders the fall after tearing an ACL but the warrior is the brains of the back end.

If that quartet is anywhere near 90 percent for much of the season, coordinator John Jancek will have reason to smile. But, they're going to need help.

Here's a look at the five players InsideTennessee's managing editor pegged as Vols that must turn the corner this spring and make it tough for Butch Jones & Co. to keep out of the starting lineup once Utah State rolls into town in August (in alphabetical order):

Justin Coleman

In 36 games played, including 25 starts, the rising senior has just one interception. If the Peach State product was taking away half the field and scaring quarterbacks from even looking in his direction, that statistic wouldn't be so glaring. However, that's just not the case.

Coleman has athleticism, speed and strength. What he doesn't have is elite level hips and start-stop to make quick breaks on well-thrown footballs. A position change could suit him quite well and a move to the nickel spot or safety is in his future if Tennessee gets a solid replacement at corner.

Malik Foreman

The Kingsport native didn't distinguish himself on special teams and couldn't lock down a firm two-deep spot in spite of average-at-best cornerback play. With a half-a-huddle of defensive backs coming with the 2014 recruiting class, the clock is ticking on the one-time Vanderbilt commit.

Assistant coach Willie Martinez has help realizing who can do what now with the likes of Josh Malone and LaVon Pearson joining Marquez North on Haslam Field. If Foreman can cover those three Vol receivers, then Martinez may have a better idea if his sophomore can match up with Amari Cooper and Laquon Treadwell.

Jalen Reeves-Maybin

The current roster says the Clarksville native is 6 feet 1, 210 pounds. One would think that the nutrition bar and strength coach Dave Lawson should pack muscle mass onto Reeves-Maybin if that surgically repaired shoulder is up to heavy lifting.

The speed and smarts (played quarterback in high school) the former Scout four-star possesses would compliment Johnson and Maggitt rather well. Reeves-Maybin will have to hold off Kenneth Bynum and Justin King this summer and several elite signees over the summer if he's going to start.

Corey Vereen

Although his snaps were limited in a freshman season that started slow with an injury, Vereen showed he can be a force off the edge. However, assistant coach Steve Stripling will need to teach the former Orlando resident some savvy so he knows when to pen his ears back and when to contain based on pre-snap giveaways.

Vereen has the makeup to be one of the best pass rushers the Vols have had in several years. If he can play the run at the same level, then something special is on the horizon.

Jordan Williams

The logjam of ends in front of Williams graduated. It's his time. Motor has never been the issue. Developing moves and a better utilization of his hands should help Williams improve on his totaling just 4 1/2 sacks in 31 games.

On top of being productive, Tennessee needs Williams to be that first man up for every drill and giving a load of green horns an idea as to how opposing tackles and tight ends plan to beat them in the talent-rich SEC.

Riley Blevins' top 5

Justin Coleman, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, LaDarrell McNeil, Corey Vereen, Jordan Williams

Josh Woodward's top 5

Jason Carr, Justin Coleman, Curt Maggitt, Danny O'Brien, Corey Vereen

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Danny Parker is currently the Managing Editor, Recruiting Analyst and Staff Photographer for InsideTennessee.com. He was previously the sports editor at Shelbyville Times-Gazette. He joined the Scout team July 2011.
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