Tennessee finished third nationally in total defense (263.5 yards per game), fourth in pass defense (160.4 yards per game), 12th in rushing defense (103.1 yards per game) and 10th in scoring defense (16.8 points per game). All of this was accomplished in spite of a UT offense that rarely gave Vol defenders a rest or a lead to work with last fall.
That said, here are five defensive questions to ponder on the eve of spring practice:
QUESTION: How much different will the 2009 defense look, compared to the 2008 defense?
BEST GUESS: Not THAT different. Monte Kiffin's scheme, like that of predecessor John Chavis, relies heavily on pressure upfront, speedy linebackers and one-on-one coverage in the secondary. Most of the changes will not be obvious to the average fan.
QUESTION: Who'll join Dan Williams in the rotation at defensive tackle?
BEST GUESS: The Vols have very few options. Minus Demonte Bolden and Walter Fisher from 2008, Tennessee's depth at the position is perilously thin. Rising senior Andre Mathis (6-2, 265) and rising junior Victor Thomas (6-4, 270) played a little last fall, while Chase Nelson (6-4, 275) was sidelined injury. The jury's still out on rising sophomore Donald Langley (6-2, 290), whose '08 season was hampered by an assortment of injuries and personal issues. Mid-term enrollee Montori Hughes (6-5, 275) will be counted on for depth, ready or not.
QUESTION: Who'll provide the pass rush now that end Robert Ayers is headed to the NFL?
BEST GUESS: Although Ayers had a big week at the Senior Bowl and probably established himself as a first-day pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, he registered just 1 sack and 6 hurries for the Vols last fall. The Big Orange actually got more production from Wes Brown (2.5 sacks, 6 hurries), who will be back for his senior season in '09. With improved play from a trio of promising juniors – Ben Martin, Chris Walker and Gerald Williams – Tennessee's pass rush should be better than last fall. Junior college transfer Rae Sykes, who is available for spring practice, should bolster the depth. Don't expect too much too soon, though, because he didn't play during his two years at Coffeyville (Kansas) Community College due to injuries.
BEST GUESS: Because Kiffin builds his defense around speedy linebackers with sideline-to-sideline range, Tennessee's reliance on smallish 'backers is likely to continue. Rising senior Rico McCoy returns for his third year as a starter on the weak side. Rising junior Savion Frazier (6-2, 210) looks like the answer on the strong side, although he'll be challenged by rising sophomore Daryl Vereen (6-0, 200), plus redshirt freshmen Rod Wilks (6-2, 205) and Herman Lathers (6-0, 210). Rising juniors Nick Reveiz (5-10, 225) and LaMarcus Thompson (6-1, 225) will battle mid-term enrollee Nigel Mitchell-Thornton (6-1, 228) for the vacancy at middle linebacker. Former Prep All-American Chris Donald, a disappointment to date, will get a fresh start under the new coaching regime, so the MLB race appears wide open.
QUESTION: Which newcomers could climb up the depth chart this spring?
BEST GUESS: I really liked what I saw of redshirt freshman Prentiss Waggner in preseason scrimmages last August but he's stuck behind Eric Berry and Demetrice Morley at safety. Outside linebackers Rod Wilks and Herman Lathers showed some flashes while redshirting last fall, as well. Two mid-term enrollees – linebacker Nigel Mitchell-Thornton and tackle Montori Hughes – could have immediate impact simply because of UT's glaring lack of proven depth at those positions. Anything can happen, of course, once the other signees report in August.