Tennessee Football: Who Will Be The Biggest Surprise On the Vols Defense In 2016?


The 2016 expectations for Tennessee football are through the roof. We know the offense will be good, but who will be the Vols’ biggest surprise on defense?

The 2015 Tennessee football defense was pretty good. However, they will mainly be remembered as a defense that gave up late leads to Oklahoma, Florida, Arkansas and Alabama.

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Arguably the biggest highlight came from Brian Randolph with his game-clinching deflection against Georgia.

This defense was led by Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Cam Sutton and Derek Barnett. The good news is they are all returning with great leadership.

But who will step up and surprise fans this year?

Starting with the secondary, Tennessee will have to replace two starting safeties in Randolph and McNeill. Todd Kelly will fill one of those positions and upgrade the talent level.

Rashaan Gaulden returns to the defense after sitting out a year due to injury. He will be a key contributor to this years defense. In high school he was a tackling machine. He had high expectations coming into last season before sustaining an injury that benched him the whole year.

Malik Foreman started the year out slow but gradually got better as each game went on. His performance at nickelback will be key. Also, Justin Martin will likely fill the other cornerback spot opposite of Sutton. Martin has the build of a perfect cornerback and showed potential at some times last year.

The defensive line is loaded with potential talent and just keeps getting better with each commit that Jones gets. Barnett’s freshman year haltered his sophomore campaign some because offenses schemed around him. However, teams this year will have to be more careful about that because Jonathan Kongbo is now on the other side of Barnett.

Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle are expected to hold down the trenches. Danny O’Brein has been solid for this defense the past two years and slightly overlooked due to the talent that has been brought in, but he remains a solid lineman that will help.

The most underrated defensive linemen might be Corey Vereen. Vereen made some noise in his recruitment, but he hardly ever made the play Vol fans were hoping for in his first year. You may recall his only big play then was a sack against Georgia on 3rd down that erupted the stadium. Vereen’s sophomore season saw a little bit more promise. Against Alabama, he was in the backfield constantly despite going against a top NFL prospect in Cam Robinson. If Vereen continues to progress as his college career goes on, then he will be one of the best players on this defense.

The linebacker core was a little rough last year. We all remember Colton Jumper. He was just not able to compete with the talent of Oklahoma and Florida, and it showed tremendously. Jones plugged in Darrin Kirkland Jr. in the middle linebacker spot midseason, and he provided a spark that the defense needed. As each game went on, Kirkland was flying around everywhere and looking the part of a future leader. You could just tell it in his game that he was going to be something special. One of his most spectacular plays was his interception against Kentucky when he read the screen perfectly. He is going to be great.

Sutton, Reeves-Maybin and Barnett will make their plays as expected. They will be the three key people offenses will talk about.

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But don’t be surprised to see Gaulden, Vereen and Kirkland land in the postseason award lists as well. They will be the next great trio, and expect them to pleasantly surprise Tennessee football fans throughout the year.