Josh Heupel saw the improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 on the defensive side of the football. That’s why the Tennessee football head coach expects to see the same thing in Year 3. And he’s not afraid to say it.
“It will be,” Heupel said this week during an appearance on Josh & Swain, when asked about the defense being better in 2023. “We took a step in Year 1 to Year 2. You look at how we defended the run, our success creating zero to negative-yard plays, top in the conference. The year before we had made some strides.”
The numbers back up Heupel’s answer.
Tennessee’s scoring defense went from 12th in the SEC in 2021, giving up 29.1 points per game, to sixth last season, at 22.8. The Vols went from eighth in rushing defense two years ago all the way to second last season, giving up just 115.7 yards per game.
Sacks increased from eighth to sixth in the league. Tackles for loss stayed at No. 2 in the SEC.
Josh Heupel: ‘We were decimated by the transfer portal’ in January 2021
The 2021 numbers were bad for a reason. When Heupel and his staff arrived, they inherited a program with an NCAA investigation hovering above it. What’s more, the roster had been decimated by a mass exodus via the NCAA Transfer Portal after the firing of Jeremy Pruitt in January 2021.
“When I first got here, we were at 67 scholarship players that were counted for the fall,” Heupel said during the radio interview. “I think we actually had 65 that were with us during the course of that fall. Most teams were at 95 because of COVID seniors that year. We were decimated by the transfer portal before we had a chance to solve that problem.”
The numbers are starting to even out for Heupel and his staff, including defensive coordinator Tim Banks, entering Year 3. The Vols went to the transfer portal to help the defense, adding BYU defensive back Gabe Jeudy-Lally, defensive lineman Omar Norman-Lott and BYU linebacker Keenan Pili.
Vols have added length, athleticism on defense
Tennessee’s 2023 recruiting class included four-star defensive lineman Daevin Hobbs, four-star edge rusher Caleb Herring and four-star linebacker Arion Carter, among others. The 2022 class was headlined by edge rushers James Pearce and Joshua Josephs, along with defensive lineman Tyre West.
“We’ve added athleticism, we’ve added length,” Heupel said. “We have a lot more competition inside of our building and certainly on the defensive side of the football.”
Tennessee has added enough bodies, and enough talent, on that side for Heupel to make a big proclamation during the radio appearance this week. The Vols, he said, are in for a “massive jump” on defense in Year 3.
“I expect us, and our players expect, to take another massive jump defensively in our productivity,” he said. “At the end of the day, man, the standard is to win championships. But there have been a lot of great defensive players that have come through here. And the challenge for us is to go play elite defense. And I believe in who we have here in the building, coaches and players alike.”
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