Josh Heupel and Tennessee football made multiple big splashes on the recruiting trail and in the transfer portal to improve the Vols’ defense this year. However, in spite of last year’s issues, the Vols seem confident in the development of the players they have returning.
Based on his Wednesday press conference, defensive coordinator Tim Banks seems hesitant to start some of the most highly touted newcomers. From the players he mentioned to what he said about those new guys, it’s clear experience is more important.
Banks touted specifically Byron Young, Tyler Baron, Tamarion McDonald and Jaylen McCollough as standouts. All four are returning players, and three are returning starters. Perhaps this is why Banks said he wasn’t surprised about Tennessee football’s defense so far. Here’s his exact quote.
"“Having done this for many years, I feel like we are exactly where we need to be. The guys are really working extremely hard; the freshmen that we have recruited, we knew they had talent, but we also knew that there would be a learning curve, and both of those things have held true.”"
Now, to be far, McDonald is a bit of a surprise if he wins a job. He was a backup safety last year, and both safeties are back in McCollough and Trevon Flowers. However, he seems to be emerging as the favorite at nickel right now, where Brandon Turnage and Doneiko Slaughter seemed to have an advantage.
All signs point to Turnage starting somewhere, though, and that could be cornerback, which would move Kamal Hadden or Warren Burrell to the bench. Simply put, McDonald starting would upset the expected order of the secondary. However, he’s been at UT for two years.
As a result, experience is still a factor. The secondary isn’t the only spot, though. When specifically mentioning depth on the defensive line, Banks didn’t even mention Tyre West, the highly touted four-star out of Georgia.
Instead, he touted LaTrell Bumphus, a sixth-year senior, Kurott Garland, a fifth-year senior, Elijah Simmons and Da’Jon Terry. All four of those players have started at some point on the line, and not mentioning West despite the departure of Matthew Butler is telling.
What did he say about newcomers specifically, though? Well, starting with the transfers, Wesley Walker and Andre Turrentine in the secondary, he was higher on Walker despite Turrentine being more highly touted. His explanation was, you guessed it, experience.
"“Dre [Andre Turrentine] is a little bit younger, so he’s still working his way through it, just like most freshmen. Obviously at the other spot (Ohio State), he was there a year, but in our mind, he’s really just a freshman. Wes (Wesley Walker) has obviously played some snaps, even though it was somewhere else. He has a little bit more of a veteran mentality.”"
Although he called freshman edge rushers James Pearce and Joshua Josephs “polished,” but then he said Tennessee football is counting on them to “grow” the defense. That suggests more development is needed, and with Young and Baron there, they won’t play much anyway.
Taking all this into account, it’s pretty clear that in spite of all the defensive issues last year and the key loss of Alontae Taylor, Banks is prioritizing experience. Perhaps that’s a good thing for the Vols. After all, as he mentioned, everybody was learning a new system last year.
Where Banks’ emphasis on experience is obvious is at linebacker. That was the worst position last year in terms of performance. However, Juwan Mitchell is back, and Banks said he feels much better about the depth at the position.
Explaining why he felt that way, though, he only named returning linebackers, including Mitchell, Jeremy banks, Aaron Beasley, Solon Page III and Kwauze Garland. There was no mention of Elijah Herring or Kalib Perry, the two freshmen.
The only position Banks didn’t speak on too much was cornerback, and remember, Tennessee football lost Taylor there and Theo Jackson at nickel. As a result, he probably doesn’t have any answers right now as to who he’s going to start. Even Trevon Flowers couldn’t answer that in his own Wednesday interview.
However, Walker and Turrentine won’t be starting there, as they moved over to safety. That means Dee Williams, a junior college transfer, is the only newcomer with a shot there. De’Shawn Rucker, Christian Charles, Hadden, Burrell and Turnage are the other guys. All of them played last year.