Halfway home: Defense

Ben Martin

With six of Tennessee's 12 regular-season games in the books, this is a good time for a position-by-position evaluation of what the defense has accomplished at the midway point.

END: Historically, Tennessee's finest defenses typically featured a rush end who tormented opposing quarterbacks ... a Leonard Little or a Shaun Ellis or a Will Overstreet. This season's top four ends — Jacques Smith, Ben Martin, Marlon Walls and Willie Bohannon — have combined for just 2.5 sacks and 8 hurries through six games. They're a key reason Tennessee ranks 11th among the 12 SEC teams in sacks. They're also a key reason opposing quarterbacks have completed 56.2 percent of their passes, averaged 12.4 yards per completion, thrown for 8 touchdowns and surrendered just 1 interception. This seems to be a gifted group (Smith and Martin were 5-star recruits) but the production hasn't matched the potential to date. POSITION GRADE: C-minus

TACKLE: For a position perceived to be a disaster area in preseason, the tackle play has been reasonably good thus far. Malik Jackson (28 stops, 3.5 tackles for loss, 3 hurries, 2 pass breakups) has played the way you expect a Preseason All-SEC performer to play. Nose tackle Daniel Hood (7 tackles, 1 sack) isn't putting up numbers but has done a fairly decent job of clogging the middle of the line. Juco transfer Maurice Couch (10 stops, 1 tackle for loss) is progressing, as is sophomore Corey Miller (13 tackles, 1 sack). Massive freshman Allan Carson, all 6-2 and 325 pounds of him, has tremendous bulk and is beginning to make a push. It will be interesting to see how Tennessee's undersized tackles stand up against Alabama's imposing offensive linemen Saturday in Tuscaloosa. POSITION GRADE: C

LINEBACKER: Middle man Austin Johnson isn't making many big plays but has posted 40 tackles and 2 hurries through the season's midpoint. True freshmen A.J. Johnson (32 stops) and Curt Maggitt (28) rank 2-3 on the tackle chart while showing flashes of greatness along with the obligatory growing pains. Senior Daryl Vereen has been really good at times, not so good at others. Dontavis Sapp (8 tackles, 1 sack, 1 fumble forced) is beginning to emerge but fellow sophomore John Propst is contributing less than he did as a freshman last year. Tennessee is starting two freshmen, so it's inevitable that the Vols take some lumps as a result. POSITION GRADE: B-minus

SAFETY: There's nothing wrong with Tennessee's safety play that Janzen Jackson's presence couldn't fix. Jackson got himself dismissed from the team in preseason, however, leaving the Vols in a serious lurch. Undersized Prentiss Waggner (177 pounds) has tried to fill the free safety void created by Jackson's departure but simply lacks the physicality. That has put added pressure on strong safety Brent Brewer, who played better as a true freshman in 2010 than he has as a sophomore in 2011. Freshman Brian Randolph was badly fooled on a 68-yard quarterback keeper in Game 4 versus Buffalo but bounced back to record 8 tackles and an assist in Game 6 versus LSU last weekend. The rookie may start at free safety Saturday versus Alabama, freeing Waggner to return to his natural position, cornerback. Junior Rod Wilks is playing fairly well as Brewer's understudy. POSITION GRADE: C-minus

CORNERBACK: This is a difficult position to play but it isn't as difficult as Tennessee's corners are making it appear. Freshman Justin Coleman opened the season as the first-team left corner but relinquished the job after getting burned for some huge pass plays in Games 1 and 2. Senior Art Evans started Game 3, only to be overtaken by juco transfer Izauea Lanier. Junior Marsalis Teague has started every game at right corner but has been painfully inconsistent. With Tennessee loading the box to stop the run, Vol corners have been put in a lot of difficult situations. To say they have not handled those situations well would be putting it mildly. They're a big reason Tennessee has just one interception all season and ranks 11th among 12 SEC teams in pass-efficiency defense. POSITION GRADE: D

SPECIAL TEAMS: Punters Matt Darr and Michael Palardy are averaging just 39.1 yards per kick. Their combined net average of 33.4 ranks last in the SEC and 110th nationally, with two of their punts blocked. Palardy is 6 of 9 on field-goal tries with a long of 43 yards but one of his attempts was blocked. Palardy's kickoffs have been erratic but he did execute a perfect on-sides kick in Game 2 versus Cincinnati, recovering it himself. Tennessee has struggled to field kickoffs and punts cleanly but freshman Devrin Young has added a real spark to the return units since taking over the runback duties. On a positive note, the Vols' kick and punt coverage has been pretty good. POSITION GRADE: D

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