Tennessee's improved defense wants to 'finish strong'

Tennessee freshman defensive end Derek Barnett, left, and Curt Magitt have combined for 21 of the Vols sacks this season.
Tennessee freshman defensive end Derek Barnett, left, and Curt Magitt have combined for 21 of the Vols sacks this season.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The improvement was evident, whether it was unexpected or not.

Now Tennessee's defense wants to provide some validation.

Despite the questions the Volunteers had along the defensive front entering the season, they managed to allow fewer yards and fewer points and jump nearly 50 spots, from 84th in 2013 to 35th as of Monday's bowl games, in the national rankings for total defense.

The progress could be solidified by a strong showing in Friday's TaxSlayer Bowl against Iowa.

"I thought we would have more speed and thought that would play to our advantage," defensive coordinator John Jancek said Tuesday morning before the Vols practiced at the University of North Florida's Hodges Stadium.

"I really had no expectations as to what the results were going to be. We were just really focused one day at a time, one practice at a time at getting better. That's really what we put our energy into.

"We want to finish strong (and) we want to play our best football every time we get an opportunity."

Despite some bumps at the end of a six-week stretch in the middle of the season, Tennessee finished the season allowing just 23.9 points and 359.9 yards per game after surrendering six more points and nearly 60 more yards in 2013.

The Vols, thanks to the exploits of defensive ends Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt, recorded the program's highest sack total (35) since 2001, spent most of the season among the SEC and national leaders in tackles for loss and allowed 16 fewer plays of 20-plus yards.

Tennessee lost its entire defensive line and a couple of linebackers from last season and managed to make it through the season despite a lack of depth that forced 11 players to start at least nine games.

photo Tennessee coach Butch Jones, center, embraces defensive backs coach Willie Martinez as Tennessee celebrates their 24-17 win over Vanderbilt at Vanderbilt Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014 in Nashville, Tenn.

"We said it, and it's no different going into the Iowa game," Vols coach Butch Jones said. "We have to be a team that overachieves. We're not going to beat you just on talent alone. We're not a program that can show up, and I don't know if anybody can just show up, but we have to earn everything that we get.

"Our coaches and our players have done a tremendous job."

The Vols will return most of this defense for 2015. The only senior starters are defensive tackle Jordan Williams, cornerback Justin Coleman and middle linebacker A.J. Johnson, who still managed to lead the Vols in tackling despite missing the final two games during his suspension. Five of the top six tacklers are slated to return.

Depth should be on the way with another strong defensive recruiting class, headlined by big-time defensive tackle recruit in Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle.

It'll be needed, too, as the Vols allowed 1,477 total yards in three games against Ole Miss, Alabama and South Carolina as the season began to take its toll on the starting players on which they relied so heavily.

Had Tennessee's defense faced a similar season with respect to injuries as the offense did -- the Vols rotated continually on the offensive line, started three quarterbacks for a second straight year, lost multiple receivers to season-ending injuries and survived with a beat-up backfield -- the improvement may not have happened.

Jones praised offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian for how he handled the missing personnel this season.

photo Mike Bajakian

"That's the mark of a very good football coach, is being able to adapt and adjust," he said. "I think he's done a great job. You look at the revolving door and the injury situation, the replacement of a lot of productivity from last year's offense, and we're up in just about every statistical category. We've taken care of the football for the most part.

"I think he's done a very, very good job, and not just him, but our entire coaching staff. Our offensive staff works well together, just like our defensive staff works well together, and I think our players have done a tremendous job."

Jancek is expecting a fresh unit for Friday's game.

"Our lack of depth throughout the season and the volume of reps that the starters had to take, we certainly needed a little bit of a breather once we completed that last ballgame," he said. "I think they've bounced back. I think they've done a good job of taking care of their bodies, and they had a good practice yesterday.

"We've just got to wrap it up here the last couple of opportunities to get ready for this bowl game."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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