As the season progressed so did Tennessee's young guns, but the DBs seemed to regress down the stretch, surrendering 341 yards through the air to South Carolina, 312 to Vanderbilt and 374 to Auburn, upping the Tigers passing total vs. UT to 626 yards in two games.
All totaled the Vols were burned for 3,073 yards through the air in 2004, the most given up by a Tennessee defense — ever. The 236 yards allowed per game is also an all-time worst for UT. Ditto for the 60.8 completion percentage allowed. The Vols ranked No. 11 in the SEC in pass defense and No. 73 nationally. All of this from a prestigious gridiron program that was built upon the bedrock principle of rock-hard defense.
Tennessee should realize some dividends this fall for the crippling cost extracted by opposing QBs last season, but you have to wonder how much difference the added experience will make. UT's anti-air unit was healthy, rested and had a full complement of 12 games under its collective belt when it allowed Texas A&M to pass for 241 yards (23 of 39) in the Cotton Bowl.
The late season slide by the secondary seemed to correspond to the dismissal of junior safety Brandon Johnson from the team. (B.J. fired a gun into the air and managed to shoot UT in the foot.) The underlying truth is that while the added experience should equate to improvement in 2005, the biggest difference has to come from an infusion of talent.
The return of Antwan Stewart will be a boost, as he brings starting experience and three years in the program to the fray. There is also potential across the board with players that enjoyed some fine individual moments last season. Still, outside of Jason Allen who is moving back to corner, Tennessee's secondary is pocked with question marks.
The only thing for certain is that Tennessee simply can't win an SEC title in 2005 while playing pass defense like it did in 2004. To any Big Orange fan making plans for Pasadena or New Orleans on New Year's Day that should be an unsettling thought.
Naturally, the success or failure of a secondary can't be judged by the defensive backs and coverage schemes alone. A good pass rush and solid pass defense are inexorably linked. The more pressure a D-line can put on a passer the less time he has to read progressions and pick out open receivers. Conversely, the better the coverage the more time the defensive line has to breach protection and sack the passer. Invariably with either is lacking the other suffers. For instance: Tennessee recorded five sacks in the upset victory over Georgia and the Bulldogs, David Greene, who picked the Vols apart in three prior wins in his career completed only 19-of-41 passes for 209 yards.
Compare that to the final four games last season in which UT had a total of five sacks and were torched for 1,137 yards on 92-of-137 passing combined vs. Vandy, Kentucky, Auburn and Texas A&M. Although UT's defense has been fairly consistent in terms of the number of overall sacks recorded by the defense in the last three years, the distribution of those numbers has declined at the defensive end. Getting more pressure from the edge without relying on blitzes maximizes UT's one-two punch of pressure and coverage.
Parys Haralson has shown a knack for the sack and led Tennessee with seven total in 2004. However the backside pressure on right hand pocket passers has had to come as much from linebackers and defensive backs on stunts as opposed to defensive ends out of a base 4-3. This is an area that the Vols need to make strides this fall.
With that qualifier out of the way, Tennessee needs a transfusion of young blood and big-time talent in the defensive backfield. Enter Demetrice Morley, who checks in as the nation's No. 1 defensive back from the Class of 2005 and, consequently, he's No. 1 on our list of the top five impact freshmen.
Morley's coverage skills are superb and he has a high aptitude for producing big plays. He reads quarterbacks very well from his safety post and shows outstanding closing speed. He's a physical DB who can play with finesse. Most significant is his diversity that allows him to play any position in the secondary on the collegiate level, including matching up with slot receivers or upgrading the nickel and dime packages.
That's where Morley is most likely to make his early contributions at Tennessee, but he'll get as much PT as he can handle before the season is finished. Don't be surprised to see him bring back some punts or kickoffs at UT. He was absolutely electrifying as a return specialist in high school.
Editor's Note: In part three we we'll look the other for freshmen of influence.