Vols seek to end up-and-down defensive season on a high note in the Orange Bowl

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee second-year defensive coordinator Tim Banks is hoping his Volunteers can build on their last performance, which was their 56-0 blanking of Vanderbilt in Nashville on Nov. 26.

The Tennessee Volunteers are the only top-25 team entering their bowl game coming off a shutout.

Of course, no Football Bowl Subdivision program surrendered more points in its next-to-last contest than the 63 Tennessee yielded at South Carolina.

Vols second-year defensive coordinator Tim Banks and his staff will have plenty to delve into when it comes to offseason self-scouting, but one more test remains. The roller-coaster ride that has been Tennessee's defense this season has a final stop in the Orange Bowl against Clemson on Dec. 30.

"We obviously finished on a high note," Banks said Tuesday in a news conference. "We probably played some of the best football we've played in the last game, but we understand there is always work to be done. I'm proud of the guys and the way they've competed with all the moving parts we've had on the back end and their next-man-up mentality."

Tennessee has improved in most defensive metrics compared to last season, allowing 398.8 yards and 23.5 points per game through its 10-2 regular season after yielding 421.7 and 29.1, respectively, during last year's run to a 7-6 record and a trip to the Music City Bowl. The most notable upgrade occurred on third down, allowing a 34.1% success rate after giving up a 42.1% clip a year ago, but the Vols were worse this season against the pass, yielding 287.0 yards per game to rank 127th among the 131 FBS teams.

The regular season is more than three weeks old now, and Tennessee defenders insist they're making the most of this time to go out in a positive way.

"There is no school," junior safety Tamarion McDonald said. "It's all football, so after practice, you don't have to rush to class. It's a lot of time to work on what you really want to work on."

Said redshirt junior safety Wesley Walker: "It feels like a regular week to me. We've just had a long break."

The Vols will be facing a Clemson team with a new starting quarterback, with freshman Cade Klubnik having replaced DJ Uiagalelei earlier this month in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game and having guided the Tigers to a 39-10 rout of North Carolina. The 6-foot-2, 195-pounder from Austin, Texas, completed 20 of 24 passes against the Tar Heels for 279 yards and a touchdown.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney announced after that game that Klubnik would start the Orange Bowl, and Uiagalelei quickly bolted into the NCAA transfer portal.

"He's like most of their team. He's really talented," Banks said of Klubnik. "He's got a strong arm and a strong release. He's played some reps, and he's an athlete. We went back and watched some of his high school film.

"I can see why he's there and why those guys are so high on him. We'll have our hands full, but we've obviously played a ton of talented quarterbacks within our league."

Klubnik will have security in the backfield in the form of sophomore running back Will Shipley, a 6-2, 195-pounder from the Charlotte suburb of Weddington who has rushed for 1,110 yards and 5.8 yards per carry this season. Shipley also has 34 receptions for 221 yards.

"He's definitely got our attention," Banks said. "Hopefully we can finish this season on a good note. There is definitely work to be done, but we can address that at the end of the season."

Avoiding the portal

Tennessee has lost eight players to the NCAA transfer portal in this 2022-23 cycle, but don't expect redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Bryson Eason to be the ninth.

"The transfer portal is crazy," Eason said Tuesday. "Some people get in there and get stuck in there. Me, personally, I just want to stay away from it."

Brooks recognized

Fifth-year senior punter Paxton Brooks was recognized Tuesday as an Academic All-American for a second consecutive year, joining former quarterback Peyton Manning as the only players in program history to earn that distinction on multiple occasions.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.