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July 17, 2013

Who's the defensive key in 2013?

While the key for the offensive side of the ball is finding replacements at the skill position spots, for the Vol defense, a large key is restoring confidence after last season's complete meltdown thanks in large part to confusion and disbelief in the system. A new system is in place and the question is can the defensive unit find their way. Today as we continue our five big questions we look at who's key to the defensive side of the ball.

Who's the key defensive player?
John's Pick
I was extremely tempted to tab Brian Randolph, because the difference the Marietta, Ga., product made in the Vols' defensive execution last year was nearly enough to mask some of Sal Sunseri's struggles. However, I think Byron Moore has assumed a greater role in various aspects of the secondary, and he and Randolph can team to alleviate some pressure from one another.

Nonetheless, secondary play is key and the best friend of any secondary is a quality, consistent pass rush. So rather than pick a single defensive player, I'm opting for the defensive line. That means Jacques Smith, Dan Hood, Marlon Walls, Maurice Couch, Daniel McCullers, Curt Maggitt and if spring was any indication, Corey Vereen, all must elevate their play.

Tennessee mustered just 17 sacks a year ago, continuing a downward trend in its effectiveness in getting to the quarterback, and in turn that placed unfair volumes of pressure on a secondary that has not yet shown it has a lock-down cover guy. For perspective, consider that Georgia's Jarvis Jones amassed 14.5 sacks and South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney tallied 13. As a team, Tennessee was dead-last in the SEC in 2012, 26 behind the Gamecocks and 21 off the pace of Ole Miss. Twelve of the SEC's 14 teams tallied at least 21 sacks, and for the Vols to grow defensively as they are capable of under John Jancek, they must consistently affect opposing quarterbacks.

Brent's Pick
My pick is A.J. Johnson and I'm picking him because the junior has to take his game to a higher level. That might sound like crazy talk given the fact that Johnson had 138 tackles last season. And make not mistake Johnson was really productive last season, but he was challenged big time in the spring and the second half of spring, the middle linebacker responded more like head coach Butch Jones wanted him to.

I'm picking Johnson not because he needs to be more productive near the line of scrimmage or in the backfield, but I'm picking Johnson because if this defense is going really be improved from a year ago then Johnson's level of play needs to be at the point where he makes those around him better.

Rob's Pick
Just about anyone on the Vols' defense with a chance to be a playmaker could be 'the most important guy' in 2013. That's because the margin for error appears thin, to say the least. Which to me, makes the healthy return of Brian Randolph playing solid football a priority.

Tennessee struggled on all three levels of the defense last year, giving up historic numbers in terms of yardage. Due to the nature of 'big plays' in the passing game though, the struggles in the secondary stood out. Struggles that were significantly magnified after Randolph was lost for the year with a torn ACL suffered against Florida.

The defensive scheme, and how much the staff asked of the players in 2012, seemed to lead to frequent bouts of confusion. Confusion that often led to receivers streaking through wide-open spaces of real estate. Not to suggest that Randolph could have solved all that ailed last year's 'D,' but his loss was a real blow in terms of guy who was cerebral enough to know his role and also help others make some key pre-snap adjustments. And despite his youth, he was already emerging as a leader on the defense as a sophomore a year ago, and this year's team can use all of those kind of intangibles they can find.

LaDarrell McNeil played some good football replacing Randolph once he got his legs under him, but was really thrown into the fire with little preparation. His potential however, gives Tennessee some real flexibility at the safety spot--with he, Randolph and Byron Moore if Randolph gets back in the groove.

Randolph described himself as '80-percent' back during the spring, and was able to take part in more and more of practice as the spring wore on. McNeil's presence means that the Vols have some options, and Randolph won't need to be rushed back, but having him as a healthy part of this year's defense would be a big positive.

Paul's Pick
This may be more geared to a unit than just one player, but the most important defender this season as of right now is Jacques Smith. The former Army All-American has just 4.5 sacks in his career at Tennessee and during his first three years with the Vols the Tennessee pash-rush has been close to nonexistent.

That's certainly not Smith's fault, but the 6-foot-2, 245-pound defensive end is in the best shape of his career and has never tipped the scales heavier than entering his senior season. Smith has the athleticism to be a very good player off the edge, but has never been able to put together his many talents. If he can put everything together this year and help a Tennessee pass rush that has ranked 98 and 100 the last two years in the country, respectively, it will go a very long ways to vastly improving the Tennessee defense what was seemingly non-existent at times last year.

Austin's Pick
My most important player on defense is defensive tackle Daniel McCullers. The mammoth defensive stopper is poised to have a big Senior season after what was a more than productive Junior campaign. As noted in the War Room, McCullers has gotten in even better shape and is more trim than he's been in sometime. He sees his potential and a motivated athlete is a dangerous athlete in most instances.

Defense wins championships and I know Tennessee isn't on the verge of garnering trophies quite yet, but this defense will go a long way to restoring Tennessee among the conference contenders in the years to come. McCullers has the opportunity to dominate against some really good offensive lines in the SEC. If he's able to push the line of scrimmage and allow the linebackers and defensive ends to cause pressure, then you can bet you'll see more sacks, more interceptions and a lot fewer points from the opposition. It's been a while since Tennessee had someone in the defensive trenches that could dictate a football game, but that very well may be the case if Mount McCullers plays like he's capable.

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