KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee faces the difficult task of trying to upgrade its defense after losing its all-time sacks leader.
Then again, even with Derek Barnett — a projected first-round NFL draft pick — that defense struggled, and it would be hard-pressed to fare a lot worse than it did late last season.
Tennessee allowed 37.1 points per game in its final seven matchups against Football Bowl Subdivision teams last year as the Volunteers split their last eight contests after a 5-0 start . The Vols have revamped their defensive coaching staff in an effort to avoid a repeat performance.
"That's our motivation," linebacker Cortez McDowell said. "We went back and looked at all the explosive plays we've given up the past season and found ways to correct it through communication or however it might be."
Tennessee's attempts to improve are complicated by all its offseason losses.
The most notable departure is Barnett , who collected a school-record 33 sacks over three seasons. The secondary must replace four-year starter Cam Sutton. The Vols also lost linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who had consecutive 100-plus tackle seasons in 2014 and 2015 before a shoulder injury limited him to four games last year.
"It's a lot different because I've always been a good player surrounded by great players," said linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr., a starter each of the last two seasons. "Now I'm kind of the last Mohican. I find myself being the main guy, the leader of the defense. I've embraced that role."
The biggest changes are up front. Barnett, Corey Vereen and LaTroy Lewis departed after combining for 22 ½ sacks last season. Tennessee doesn't have anyone left who produced more than 2 ½ sacks a year ago.
"We have lost a lot of production, but that's the exciting thing about college football," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "Every year a third of your roster or more turns over, and it's new opportunities for everyone. It's new leadership opportunities. It's individuals to grow into different roles than they had last year."
Tennessee's defensive line might look quite a bit different in the fall than it does this spring. Defensive linemen Kyle Phillips, Shy Tuttle and Kendal Vickers aren't participating in spring drills to recover from injuries.
Defensive line coach Brady Hoke named Darrell Taylor, Jonathan Kongbo and Quay Picou as three players who have caught his attention this spring. Kongbo arrived at Tennessee last year as a heralded junior-college transfer but recorded just one sack. Taylor and Picou combined for no sacks and 1 ½ tackles for loss in limited playing time.
Hoke has emphasized the need to boost a run defense that allowed 5 yards per carry and yielded far too many big plays last season. Hoke is one of two new defensive coaches this season, as Charlton Warren arrived from North Carolina to handle the secondary.
Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop says the changes have brought a new energy. Shoop told a story of how he went into Hoke's office at 6 a.m. one day to ask the former Michigan head coach how he might have handled a particular issue.
"Every time there's change, sometimes it can create anxiety, but it's kind of been refreshing," Shoop said. "Charlton Warren's done an outstanding job and he's fit right into our culture. Brady Hoke certainly has a tremendous amount of experience and has been a great mentor and has really helped me out personally."
That new approach has Tennessee's players confident they can produce better results. This defense might not have as much star power as before, but the Vols believe they can develop into a more cohesive overall unit.
"When you have two or three superstars but no one else on a defense, you can't really play well together," safety Todd Kelly Jr. said. "Just having 11 sound guys that can play Tennessee defense and 'Orange Swarm' football, that's what it's all about. And that's what we're trying to build each and every day."
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