HOOVER, Ala. – Tennessee’s defense struggled mightily last year.
The Vols surrendered over 30 points per game, allowed at least 30 points to six teams, gave up over 400 yards per game, and ranked 11th in the SEC in pass defense.
That’s not a recipe for success. Or optimism.
But Tennessee senior cornerback Alontae Taylor has unyielding faith in a unit that couldn’t prevent the Vols from going 3-7.
“My expectation for this defense is really, really high,’’ Taylor said at SEC Football Media Days on Tuesday. “I expect us to be the no. 1 defense in the country in the run game and pass game. Interceptions, whatever it may be. Turnovers.
“That might sound a little cliché, but me being a leader and saying what the defense has done in past and what it could possibly do as for as improving, I wouldn’t sell us short.’’
Taylor’s bold comments come despite the Vols being hit hard by defensive departures. Linebacker Henry To’o To’o transferred to Alabama. Linebacker Quavaris Crouch transferred to Michigan State. Safety Key Lawrence transferred to Oklahoma. Linebacker Deandre Johnson transferred to Miami.
Five other defensive players left for various reasons.
“We got hit hard on defense by the transfer portal,’’ said UT coach Josh Heupel, who noted that the Vols brought in, from the portal, two defensive linemen, two linebackers and two defensive backs.
Not only will Tennessee have new faces on defense, the defensive coordinator is a new face: Tim Banks, hired from the Penn State staff.
So why is Taylor so bullish on the Vols’ defense.
“We had a lot of guys come back,’’ Taylor said. “We lost (cornerback) Bryce Thompson (early to the NFL draft) which was a big bust to our defense. But we’ve got really great corners that stepped up. Got more depth in the cornerback room. I have a lot of faith in those guys. … We’ve just got to get more turnovers and be more passionate in what we do.’’
Tennessee’s pass defense was porous a year ago, and anything but opportunistic. It allowed 15 touchdown passes while picking off just five passes. Opponents completed 68.2% of their passes – 13th in the SEC.
How can Tennessee take a step forward on defense?
“It really comes down to confidence,’’ Taylor said. “We’ve got to make sure we’ve got good confidence in ourselves and fly around and know the defense and the playbook.
“This playbook is a little different than last year’s playbook. With that, we can play a little faster, play a little quicker, stay confident and fly around to the ball.’’