Come Sept. 2, Vol defense will be better

Marvin Westwestwords

Speed ahead with me now to the Thursday evening of Sept. 2 and an exciting 52-44 Tennessee football victory over Bowling Green at historic Neyland Stadium.

Just about midnight, when the cheering is finished and the multitude heads home, when media obligations are completed and the Vols are ready for a nap, Josh Heupel may think how fortunate he is to have such a good job in beautiful East Tennessee.

He might risk congratulating himself on hitting the lottery, on cashing in big time, on having a smart boss, strong helpers and a quarterback – and a chance to build something out of not much.

Just then, creeping into the positive outlook, will come a distraction: What are we going to do about defense?

OK, you get the idea. Let us return to reality.

Perhaps you noticed that Tennessee’s defense wasn’t very good the last time you saw it, in the Orange and White game. Some of that was caused by coaching handcuffs, some by who played and who didn’t play.

Take my word for it: The defense will perform better this fall. It added a linebacker and traded in a tackle or two. It added help in the secondary. Credit the coach for not standing still.

Accept this warning: The competition will be better. Don’t expect the net result to be outstanding. It is more likely to be somewhere around so-so. Hopefully, it won’t break bad records. Been there and done that.

Tennessee’s worst-I-have-ever-seen defense was 2012. So you don’t have to look it up, those Volunteers yielded 428 points, 5,657 yards and 51 touchdowns in 12 games.

That defense was balanced. It gave up 25 scoring runs and 26 scoring passes.

It was Derek Dooley’s last hoorah. Sal Sunseri, imported from Alabama, suffered a little setback as a beginning defensive coordinator. The Vols went 1-7 against SEC foes. Linebackers were Curt Maggitt, A.J. Johnson and Herman Lathers. They thought I would forget.

Georgia and Missouri scored 51points each. The Bulldogs did it in four quarters. It took the Tigers four overtimes.

Troy scored 48 and turned homecoming into a nervous wreck. Alabama racked up 44 and cut back the engine. Mississippi State and Vanderbilt got 41 each, South Carolina 38 and Florida just 37.

The game against Troy was embarrassing. The rumor lives on that the original UT football benefactors, Col. William Simpson Shields and his spouse, Alice Watkins, sent word from above that they wanted to change the name of the sacred Shields-Watkins playground they had funded.

General Robert R. Neyland coached 78 shutouts on that green grass. How dare anyone desecrate it!

Troy did. The Vols helped.

In real life, Troy wasn’t very good. It finished in a tie for sixth in the Sun Belt Conference. Tennessee made the Trojans look like world champs.

Maybe you have heard that all is well that ends well. Not so. Tennessee was trailing in the frantic fourth quarter. It got even at 48. Troy was very tired. The Vols muscled up, forced a punt and got the ball 66 yards from where it needed to be with time running short.

Tyler Bray did just enough. Marlin Lane’s 9-yard run salvaged the day. Paying customers went away shaking their heads. Not long after that, Dooley went away. You know what happened after that. The Volunteers wandered along in the wilderness.

Heupel is still very new on the job. He is optimistic. He says positive things. In case he doesn’t know, this is not Easy Street. His up-tempo offense may serve as a distraction but the objective of Tennessee football is to win games (and make money).

Hoping to have the ball last is not a dependable game plan. The Vols will need to stop or at least slow somebody.

There are reasons Heupel spent a long time looking before he announced Tim Banks as his defensive director. Several prospects didn’t want the opportunity. The team is thin on defensive talent. The SEC is the biggest of the big leagues. The NCAA black cloud is stationary.

Heupel’s quick-strike attack means the defense may get more than a fair share of playing time. That could scar the coordinator’s resume with worse stats than he deserves.

Banks didn’t exactly leap forth from Penn State to accept the challenge. He first said no thanks. Heupel’s second effort and more money ($1.3 million) proved decisive.

Don’t bet the farm on this but Rodney Garner will not permit the defensive front to ever again look as it did in the spring game. He will not, not, not.

I sense that Garner encouraged two returning tackles to seek other employment. Good news that the Vols acquired transfer linemen. Better news that linebacker Juwan Mitchell came from Texas to Tennessee. Brian Jean-Mary will do a better job coaching that group. Willie Martinez may make established and new cornerbacks look like real players.

Maybe it is blind faith but it is conceivable that the defense will be better organized, more cohesive.

That is a strange thought. Defensive coordination was supposedly what Jeremy Pruitt did best.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is

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