Banks confident Vols will tackle effectively out of the gate

Tennessee Athletics photo / Linebacker Aaron Beasley and the Tennessee defense closed last season with an impressive performance in the 31-14 Orange Bowl victory over Clemson.

It's a simple question that could go a long way in determining Tennessee's football success in the weeks ahead.

Will the Volunteers be an effective team at tackling?

That basic element of the sport eluded the Vols during a 63-38 loss at South Carolina last November, but they bounced back with a pair of thorough defensive performances, blanking Vanderbilt 56-0 in Nashville and then stunning Clemson 31-14 in the Orange Bowl.

College programs don't have as much allowed tackling time during the preseason, which can lead to some unknowns heading into opening games. Tennessee opens its promising 2023 season a week from Saturday against Virginia in Nashville.

"It's a fine line that you walk," Vols third-year defensive coordinator Tim Banks said Friday in a news conference. "The reality of it is that tackling is a skill that has to be developed, and you probably don't get enough tackling opportunities. For the good of the game, you try to protect your guys and keep them healthy, but at the same time, you've got to do it. I think we've done everything we can to get these guys prepared to tackle.

"Whether it was 10 years ago or last year, you've always got to get that first tackle under your belt in that first game. I think the guys will get comfortable and get going."

The NCAA in recent years has reduced the number of full-contact preseason practices and has ended two-a-day sessions altogether.

"We talk about playing with relentless effort," Banks said, "so even if a guy isn't where he needs to be or struggles through a tackle, if we're running to the ball with the pursuit that's required, then we should be OK."

Banks believes the biggest plus for his third defense is its depth, which includes six returning senior starters: tackle Omari Thomas, linebacker Aaron Beasley, cornerbacks Kamal Hadden and Doneiko Slaughter, "star" Tamarion McDonald and safety Jaylen McCollough. A whopping nine defensive backs return with at least some starting experience, and there are also quality veterans up front with Tyler Baron, Roman Harrison and Elijah Simmons.

Tennessee added experience through the transfer portal as well with defensive tackle Omarr Norman-Lott, linebacker Keenan Pili and defensive back Gabe Jeudy-Lally.

"We've got a lot of guys who have played some football around here," Banks said. "We should be able to rotate a lot of guys, and it's exciting, to be quite honest with you."

The Vols practiced Friday and will work out again Saturday before taking Sunday off.

Contact David Paschall at [email protected].