By Mark Nagi
The Tennessee Volunteers defense took some major steps back in 2020. That, of course, is in line with the rest of the team, and really the entire program.
New head coach Josh Heupel believes that he has assembled a defensive staff that will be able to correct many of the Vols recent failures.
“I’m excited about this group of men and who they are, and how they’re going to impact our players in a positive way off the field,” Heupel said at a March 8th press conference. “A group of high-energy men that have a ton of experience.”
Heupel most important hire, arguably on the entire staff, is Tim Banks as defensive coordinator. Mike Ekeler will handle outside linebackers and special teams, with Brian Jean-Mary in charge of linebackers overall. Rodney Garner and Willie Martinez are back for another tour at Tennessee, with Garner handling the defensive line and Martinez coaching the secondary.
“It’s good to be back on Rocky Top,” said Garner, who was a big part of Tennessee’s recruiting success during the glory days. “It’s exciting for me and my family. It’s something that we’ve talked about. It’s sort of like life is coming full circle, being able to come back here. Obviously, we were here in the late 90s and have the opportunity to be able to get Tennessee back to the elite status that we feel like it belongs at. We’re trying to play a role and be able to contribute to that.”
Banks is looking forward to the start of spring practice in a couple of weeks. But he already has a grasp on the hand that he’s been dealt.
“Anytime you are trying to build something, you got to know what parts you have,” said Banks, who had been the co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach at Penn State the past five seasons. “We are evaluating everything these guys obviously did last season. We’ve been fortunate enough to be able to get around these guys to see them work a little bit in the weight room and some different movement activities on the field. So, at that point, we are just evaluating and trying to figure out what they do, how they move and obviously will center the package around it.”
Tennessee had a well-respected defensive coordinator on staff with Kevin Steele’s hiring back in January. But Heupel decided to make a clean break.
“Kevin (Steele) is a great coach (who’s) been inside of this league for a long time and obviously has some ties to Tennessee as well,” said Heupel. “I wish him nothing but the best as he moves on in his coaching career in the future. I ultimately felt like this was the right collection of talent here to lead our players and help lead this football program.”
Don’t shed a tear for Steele, who will receive $900,000 from Tennessee for what amounts to two months of work. And remember, Steele was already getting over $4 million in buyout cash from Auburn after his firing on The Plains.
This staff is tasked with achieving what no Tennessee staff has accomplished in 13 years (and counting), and that’s to get the Vols back to Atlanta. With only a couple of exceptions, UT hasn’t been very competitive in the SEC.
Ekeler knows what Neyland Stadium has been and could be again.
“I just remember walking in there and first of all, you walk in that stadium and it’s absolutely beautiful,” he said. “I mean it’s incredible. It’s all symmetrical and it’s probably one of the most breathtaking structures you’ve been in. And then, you toss in 103,000 people and they start singing Rocky Top and it’s an electric environment.“