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Tennessee Finishes Regular Season Among Top Teams in the Nation in Key Defensive Statistical Category

Tim Banks' unit finishes as one of the top schools in the nation in terms of a big defensive statistical category.

In February, the Vols hired Penn State's co-defensive coordinator Tim Banks to a three-year deal. Banks walked into a non-ideal situation. Tennessee had lost Quavaris Crouch, Henry To'o To'o, Darel Middleton and other defensive players to the transfer portal amid the NCAA investigation into the Tennessee Football Program. 

Despite doubt that the Vols would have an above-average defense, Banks' unit has been able to go toe-to-toe with some of the best SEC offenses this season, specifically Ole Miss and Alabama. 

A significant reason for the Vols' defensive success has been the defensive line coached by first-year coach Rodney Garner

Garner inherited a group that had a lot of young players such as Elijah Simmons, Omari Thomas, Tyler Baron and Byron Young, and a couple of Vol veterans in Matthew Butler and Jay Blakely. Young led the team in sacks as a first-year Vol and Butler had a career season-high five sacks and eight-and-a-half tackles for loss. 

Butler's tackles for loss join the Vols' total of 94 tackles for loss, which finished second in the SEC and seventh in the nation.

Young leads the defensive line with nine tackles for loss, joining Theo Jackson and Jeremy Banks as the leaders for the entire defense. 

Following the bye week in early November, Tennessee was leading the nation in TFLs, and Banks touched on the significance of TFLs and if he was surprised the Vols had done so well in that category. 

"With everything we do we want to be aggressive, whether we are in our four-down, three-down, depending on what coverage we’re in. I didn’t know, every year is a new year," Banks said. "We try to evaluate the talent we have and match it up with the scheme the best we can. We pride ourselves on trying to minimize their weaknesses and putting those guys in the best possible position to be successful. It’s more of a credit to them, how hard they’re playing and giving the scheme a chance. It’s really all about the kids and how hard they’re playing. Those are the guys out there making the plays."

Kentucky and Georgia proposed a tougher challenge to Tennessee's defense, and the number of TFLs dipped during those two weeks. But the Vols finished strong against South Alabama, as the unit had a staggering 13 TFLs against the Jaguars and five against the Commodores to finish with 94, second most in the program's history. 

Two players in the top five in most TFLs for Tennessee, Theo Jackson and Matthew Butler, will not be returning next year, as both are fifth-year seniors. 

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Rodney Garner and Tim Banks have given a lot of praise to the two seniors for their abilities to take a leadership role and have career years in 2021.

“Matt’s been everything," Banks said about Butler. "I talked about Alontae (Taylor) being very vocal. Matt’s not real vocal, but if you come out there and you watch him practice, we might as well be playing one of the top SEC teams in practice because he goes 100 miles an hour. He’s very about details, every rep asking, ‘Hey coach, how did I do? Was that right? Was that wrong?’ Here’s a guy who’s a senior that has played a lot of football. Here’s a guy that is having great success. Even in practice today, he’s trying to get immediate feedback on his technique and fundamentals. He’s been tremendous in that way, that our young guys can watch, how to me, what a true pro looks like. He just goes about his business every single day. He doesn’t have to say it, because he walks it every day. Again, I’d love to have him back. We’re going to miss him, but somebody’s going to be very fortunate to get that guy on their roster.”

"He comes to work every day. He wants to be good," Garner said regarding Butler. "He wants to be pushed. He’s tough. He can take it and do it with the best of them. He responds. The whole room really, it’s an enjoyable room."

Following the South Alabama game in which Theo Jackson had an impressive tackle for loss, Banks touched on Jackson's play and how he has blossomed over the season.

“In relation to Theo and the play he made, it’s just Theo being Theo. He’s worked really hard all year, and he’s obviously had a tremendous season for us. He’s shown a lot of grit, a lot of determination, being able to strain and get off the block. One guy’s blocking him, and he’s still able to make that tackle. I wish I could tell you I was surprised, but that’s what he does in practice all the time as well. He’ll be missed. I didn’t study these guys last year. I made a conscious effort to just evaluate them based on what we saw during practice and in our daily meetings. All I can tell you, we did the best we could to put him in the positions that we felt would give him a chance to be successful, and all he’s done is answer the bell. The Theo that we inherited was a guy that was very much attention to detail, was very much invested in his teammates and making sure he’s bringing it each and every day. That’s why to me, that’s why you saw him play at the level that he’s played at all season.”

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