Vols eager to display quality and quantity on defense this season

Tennessee Athletics photo / Linebacker Aaron Beasley and the Tennessee defense were lit up during a 63-38 loss at South Carolina last November, but the Volunteers responded with convincing performances against Vanderbilt and Clemson and enter this season with a slew of experience.

It's beyond understandable why Tennessee football fans are so eager to see their Volunteers on offense Saturday afternoon against Virginia inside Nashville's Nissan Stadium.

The Vols, after all, did lead the nation a year ago with 525.5 yards and 46.1 points per game, and they overcame the loss of quarterback Hendon Hooker to a season-ending injury by scoring 87 combined points against Vanderbilt and Clemson under the guidance of Joe Milton III.

Yet there is plenty of intrigue with the Tennessee defense as well, with last season's unit having been torched during a 63-38 loss at South Carolina but then recovering to blank the Commodores and hold the Tigers to 14 points in the Orange Bowl.

"I like where we're at, and I like what I've seen throughout camp and in the past few practices," Vols senior linebacker Aaron Beasley said earlier this week in a news conference. "I just think we've got to keep improving. We haven't seen what we look like against somebody other than our offense, but I like us and I like our depth.

"I like the talent we have, and I can't wait to see it when Saturday comes."

Tennessee was noticeably improved defensively last season compared to 2021, when head coach Josh Heupel and defensive coordinator Tim Banks had to hold together a roster that had been ravaged by the transfer portal following the termination of previous coach Jeremy Pruitt.

This year's defensive Vols are overrun with experience, with linemen Dominic Bailey, Tyler Baron, Bryson Eason, Kurott Garland, Roman Harrison, Elijah Simmons and Omari Thomas in their fourth or fifth years in Knoxville. Beasley is in his fourth season and will be starting alongside Keenan Pili, a sixth-year senior who started the past three seasons at Brigham Young University before transferring.

The Tennessee secondary has a staggering nine players who have started multiple games during the Heupel era and added cornerback Gabe Jeudy-Lally, who started 10 games at Vanderbilt in 2021 and 10 games at BYU last season.

There is no questioning Tennessee's quantity on the defensive side of the ball, but it's the quality aspect that this year's team is seeking to enhance. At the Southeastern Conference's annual media days event in July, the Vols were picked second behind Georgia in the Eastern Division but did not have a single first-, second- or third-team representative on defense in preseason All-SEC recognition.

"Our guys probably saw that, but it's not something that we talk about as a coaching staff with our players," Heupel said this week. "Preseason ballots have little to nothing to do with what transpires in the fall. For us, and this is since we got back in January, it's about competing at a really high level every single day.

"Our guys have been good all offseason, and they were great in training camp. I love the mindset that we see from these guys, and at the end of the day, postseason stuff happens because of a team's success."

Injury updates

Heupel held his final news conference of the week on Thursday and was asked about the status of senior center Cooper Mays, who suffered an injury early in camp that required a procedure.

"We kind of make these decisions on Friday," Heupel said. "We've still got one practice left, so we'll make all these decisions tomorrow."

Heupel did announce that the 6-foot-2, 340-pound Simmons would miss Saturday's opener.

Odds and ends

Tennessee will wear its traditional home combination of orange jerseys and white pants Saturday. ... The Vols are opening a season at Nissan Stadium for a third time, having dispatched of Wyoming 47-7 in 2002 and Bowling Green 59-30 in 2015. ... Tennessee is 8-2 in nonconference games under Heupel (losing to Pittsburgh and Purdue in 2021) and has scored at least 30 points in all 10 contests. ... Tennessee's last meeting with Virginia was the 23-22 comeback victory in the Sugar Bowl following the 1990 season, which gave the Vols a 3-1 series lead. ... The Vols are 108-62-7 against teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Contact David Paschall at [email protected].