The defense also has a new crew up front, and promise rests with four freshmen: ends Derek Barnett and Dewayne Hendrix and tackles Dimarya Mixon and Michael Sawyers.
While those newcomers and juco transfer tackle Owen Williams will have roles for the Vols, some returning players will do most of the heavy lifting, to start the season at least.
Corey Vereen and converted linebacker Curt Maggitt look to help Tennessee rediscover its lost pass rush from end, while beefed-up end Jordan Williams, former four-star recruit Danny O’Brien and Trevarris Saulsberry, back from injury and hoping to stay healthy, top the group at tackle.
“I got married to the weight room over the summer,” O’Brien said. “I lived in there, getting extra work in every day, and a lot of guys on our defensive line and our team have done that. I’m trying to just seize the opportunity. We’ve got a chance to do some great things with ‘Team 118.’ I can’t wait to play with these guys, and I think we’re going to do a lot of great things.”
A.J. Johnson is considered Tennessee’s best player, and the senior two-time All-SEC middle linebacker has the list of accolades to prove it. The 6-2, 245-pounder is looking for more wins in his final season, and he wasn’t shy about voicing that feeling during his time at SEC media days in July.
Beyond him is a young, inexperienced corps led by two promising players: sophomore Jalen Reeves-Maybin, a special-teams ace in 2013, and freshman Dillon Bates, a legacy player with great instincts and ability.
But Johnson is Tennessee’s anchor, and the Vols have limited his reps this preseason partly to make him work on being the leader the Vols need him to be.
“I thought he took monumental steps forward in leadership and ownership of this football team on defense where he called the defense together in the tent and kind of rallied them and got them going,” Jones said after practice on Aug. 7.
“We’re going to need that, because we’re not out on the field with these individuals come game day. It has to be a player-led football team, like I continually say each and every day.”
There’s a reason Tennessee targeted, recruited and signed so many defensive backs in its 2014 class. For a reminder, just watch the highlights from SEC champion Auburn’s dismantling of the Vols last November.
“Yeah, we’re faster. We’re faster,” secondary coach Willie Martinez said after Tennessee’s third preseason practice. “We may not know what we’re doing right now, but we’ve made up for some mistakes with our speed, which is good to see.”
Cornerback Emmanuel Moseley, 33 pounds (and growing) heavier than when he arrived in January, somewhat surprisingly became the first freshman to break into a starting job in Tennessee’s secondary back in the spring. Safety Todd Kelly may be next. All of them at least figure to help on special-teams coverage units.
Yet Tennessee’s back line is anchored by three veterans: safety Brian Randolph, nickelback Justin Coleman and cornerback Cam Sutton. Coleman is a better fit in his new spot, Sutton is looking to build off his Freshman All-SEC fseason and Randolph is Tennessee’s second-most important defensive player behind Johnson.
Michael Palardy, where are thou?
The player Jones dubbed the Vols’ 2013 MVP turned an up-and-down career into an excellent senior season in which he was a weapon as a punter, much improved on kickoffs and dependable on field goals. Tennessee is looking to replace Palardy with one veteran and — surprise, surprise — another freshman.
Fifth-year senior Matt Darr is looking to do the same in his final season. Once the nation’s top-ranked high school punter, Darr averaged 38.1 yards on 40 punts in 2011 and 39 yards on 16 boots in 2012. Palardy averaged 44.5 last season.
“The journey’s not over,” he said.
Freshman Aaron Medley, ESPN’s top-ranked kicker in the 2014 class, made some pressure kicks his first week of practice to become the favorite to handle the Vols’ place-kicking duties.
Young has been the staple of the Vols’ return game in his career, and he may be the most dependable option on both punts and kickoffs, unless a newcomer proves to the coaches he’s a gamebreaker.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...