Tennessee’s defense exceeds expectations through three games

Byron Young lifted Tennessee’s defense in his college debut against Tennessee Tech just a week before the Vols travel to Gainesville.

Willie Miller (8) runs from Vol defenders when Tennessee played Tennessee Tech in Neyland on Sept. 18, 2021. Photo/Christian Knox

Going into the season, it was believed Tennessee’s biggest weakness would be their defense. Instead, they have put up solid performances in the first three games of the season including Tennessee’s (2-1) 56-0 shutout win over Tennessee Tech (0-3) on Saturday.

A major addition to the defense has been Byron Young. Young was deemed ineligible for the first two games of the season due to NCAA issues stemming from playing two games for a prep school that would then be discontinued. He is a defensive end who had his presence felt early in the game.

In his debut, Young quickly made five tackles in the first half alone, which he followed up with a solo tackle in the fourth quarter. His six tackles tied for the most on the team. Young’s snap count went down as the game went on, though, as the Vols transitioned to playing more backups once the game got out of hand.

“(Young) is one of our best pass rushers,” Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel said. “We missed him the first couple weeks but having him back today and in the future is going to be big for us.”

The defensive line as a whole was a concern going into the season, but they have stepped up so far. Matthew Butler and Tyler Baron led the way in the first two games, but it was Aubrey Solomon and Young that led the charge on Saturday. Solomon had six tackles, including three solo takedowns.

Tennessee’s improved defensive line play can, at least in part, be attributed to the hire of coach Rodney Garner. Garner, known for his development of NFL-quality linemen, has coached in the SEC for 31 years, including a stint on Rocky Top from 1996-1997.

The Vols were not able to force any turnovers in their first two appearances. Garner’s big men upfront helped with that cause against Tennessee Tech, though, as they created pressure at the line of scrimmage all game and hurried the quarterback. The increased pressure helped create Tennessee’s four interceptions.

“It happens because you apply pressure on the quarterback. It happens because you get your hands on balls,” Heupel said on forcing turnovers. “When we have opportunities, guys make plays. Today you saw some of those things.”

A lack of depth and experience at linebacker led many to believe that it would be a major issue throughout the season, but the group has played well so far. Solon Page III shined against Tennessee Tech, putting up three tackles and an interception that he turned into a 31-yard pick-six. The redshirt senior saw most of his time on special teams units until this season.

“It obviously means a lot just being able to play for such a prestigious program and really playing for coaches who have gone on and won a lot of games,” said Page III on having chances to play at linebacker this season. “I didn’t have those big opportunities and now that I’m starting to get the opportunity, you know, I’m just blessed to have this opportunity now.”

A Vol secondary manned by Alontae Taylor, Trevon Flowers, Theo Jackson, Warren Burrell and Jaylen McCollough is one of the most experienced groups on the Tennessee roster. The defensive backs played well through the first two games but really began to shine on Saturday.

Taylor, McCollough and backup defensive back Tamarion McDonald all grabbed interceptions against Tennessee Tech. Even when the backs could not create turnovers, they still played tight defense on receivers, leading to four three and outs for Tennessee Tech.

Next week, the competition will become much tougher than a Tennessee Tech team that has been winless since 2019. The Vols will travel to Gainesville to take on the No. 11 Florida Gators, who just took No. 1 Alabama down to the wire in a 31-29 loss.

Florida runs a dual quarterback system that incorporates Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson, who are the two leading rushers for the Gators so far this season. Richardson missed the game against Alabama due to injury but will likely be ready to go against Tennessee.

Florida’s high-powered offense produced well over 400 total yards in each of their games so far, including 666 yards against USF. This may spell trouble for the Volunteers, who gave up 397 yards against a much worse Pittsburgh offense. Tennessee’s defense has been decent so far, but the Vol defenders now face the tough task of getting pressure on Jones and Richardson while keeping them contained in the pocket.

 

Edited by Christian Knox

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Ryan Sylvia is the Sports Editor at TNJN. He is a junior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville majoring in journalism and electronic media. Although he spent most of his life being raised outside of Philadelphia, he was born in Knoxville, and he is happy to be back home. Ryan has had a love for sports from an early age, and he found his love for writing in high school while taking journalism classes. He hopes to find a job involving both his passions as a sports journalist after graduation. To reach Ryan, email him at rsylvia@vols.utk.edu