SEC Country reporter Blake Morgan will candidly answer your Tennessee sports queries each weekday in our Mailbag Question of the Day . Join the conversation by sending your questions via Twitter to @BlakeMorganSEC, Tennessee Insiders Facebook page or by email to Blake at email@example.com .
I’ll answer the first half, and leave the second for another day.
Throughout the roster, it’s the front seven that has the most potential to make a jump in production this season.
The team is going to switch from a 4-2-5 defense to a 3-4. The personnel isn’t totally in place at this point to make the switch effectively. After last season, though, a switch is probably a good thing.
Tennessee was the second-worst Power 5 team in run defense last season. The Vols gave up a whopping 251.25 yards per game on the ground.
The defensive line was pushed around all season, and injuries across the defense affected how well the team could play.
So, why the reason for optimism?
First of all, the return of linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr., is huge. He missed the entire 2017 season after having surgery on his knee to repair some meniscus damage. He will likely play one of the inside linebacker positions next season.
Kirkland is a legitimate NFL prospect when he’s healthy. If he can get back to near 100 percent by the fall, then he can elevate the ceiling of the defense.
Darrin Kirkland Jr. is an NFL linebacker — there's no question — great speed, agility and sound open-field tackler. Just needs a healthy season IMO. https://t.co/cfVGjRf31T
— Mike Griffith (@MikeGriffith32) February 12, 2018
The Vols also signed 4-star linebacker JJ Peterson. He likely will start early in his freshman season. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound linebacker has the flexibility to play any of the four linebacker positions and could be moved around a lot, depending on the package.
Peterson returned kickoffs for his high school team, so he possesses the athleticism and strength to be a difference-maker right away.
Adding Kirkland and Peterson to the defense will give the Vols much more speed and open-field tackling in the middle of the defense.
Defensive tackle Emmit Gooden also could play a big role early. The coaching staff clearly wasn’t sold on the current players’ ability to play the nose tackle spot in a 3-4.
Gooden is a junior college transfer who will be relied on to plug up the middle of the defense. The 6-foot-4, 295-pound Brownsville, Tenn., native might become one of the most important signees from the Class of 2018.
These players should all have big impacts on the front seven’s play next season. I expect a big jump in production from this group, which shouldn’t be too hard after last season’s results.
For answers to prior Tennessee Questions of the Day, click here .
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