KNOXVILLE — There are plenty of questions surrounding Tennessee's football program as this season nears its end, and topping the list for the Volunteers is fixing a futile defense after its November collapse.
Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop tried to find some early solutions during the first few bowl practices.
Tennessee's focus now is entirely on the Music City Bowl clash against Nebraska on Dec. 30, but the coaching staff emphasized youth development earlier in December with an eye toward the 2017 season.
"I'd be doing our seniors a disservice if I started thinking about next year," Shoop said last week, "but you do, because you're in recruiting and you're thinking about the future roster and things like that. I get excited about the thought of Darrell Taylor. I get excited about the thought of Jonathan Kongbo in his second year as a three-technique. Those things fire me up.
"The thought about D.K. (linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr.), the thought about Daniel Bituli being a guy, Nigel Warrior. Obviously congratulations to Derek Barnett on being an All-American and All-SEC player, but also to Nigel Warrior for being an All-SEC all-freshman player. Those are all positive things and things that we can build on. Once we get back in January, I'll have those individual meetings with the players and hopefully we can put 2016 to bed and look forward to a better 2017."
Tennessee's injury-ravaged defense allowed averages of 29 points and 460 yards per game to rank ninth in scoring defense and 11th in total defense in the Southeastern Conference, but the finish was most alarming as Tennessee surrendered 118 points and nearly 2,000 yards in its final three games against Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt.
Shoop took over last January hoping to help the Vols turn into an elite defense, but they regressed, and success in the SEC isn't achieved without solid defense. Alabama is an obvious example, but Florida won the East the past two seasons despite listless offenses and Missouri's defense was key in its division titles in 2013 and '14.
In addition to losing two cornerstone seniors in linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cameron Sutton — Tennessee played most of the season without the injured All-SEC players — the Vols likely will have to replace Barnett and sidekick Corey Vereen, a duo that has combined for 18 sacks this season.
The Vols don't necessarily lose much from this defense, but it's imperative there's improvement and development from the returning cast, especially at linebacker and in the secondary. There don't appear to be many quick fixes coming in with the next recruiting class, as the star power on Tennessee's current commitment list mostly lies on the offensive side of the ball.
"We do have a lot of different needs at all levels of football: the D-line, the linebackers and the secondary," Shoop said. "The way we performed this year, we're not in a position where we can say anybody coming in doesn't have the opportunity to compete. It's all about competition."
Specifically, Shoop said, Tennessee defensive players must compete within themselves to be their best and compete better "within the framework" of their position groups so that players struggling in a game can be replaced.
"That was part of the problem at the end of the year," Shoop said. "We didn't have the necessary depth where we could yank that guy out and put another guy in."
Before they turn their attention toward fixing their problems on defense, the Vols first must handle the bowl matchup with the Cornhuskers.
"You hit the reset button," Shoop said. "It's a fresh start. Bowls means different things to different people, and the first step in playing well in a bowl game is the desire to be there. I sense that in our unit and our team."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.