When it comes to SEC football, shut-down defenses are a commonality. With teams such as LSU, Alabama, Texas A & M, and Georgia, Tennessee always has an assortment of stellar defensive teams on their schedule. Of all the defensive stars the Tennessee offense will have to face in the fall, Alabama linebacker Christian Harris, Florida corner Kaiir Elam, and Georgia star defenders LB Nolan Smith, DT Jordan Davis, and newly acquired Clemson transfer, CB Derion Kendrick, are sure to make the Vols hit lows on the offensive side of the ball, rounding out the top 5 defensive players that the Vols will face.
Alabama LB Christian Harris
The first highly talented player to be mentioned on this list is junior Alabama linebacker Christian Harris. Harris is coming into his junior year riding a highly successful wave from his first two years with the Tide. After excelling in 12 starts in 13 games as a freshman and being selected to the Freshman All-SEC team by league coaches, the four-star linebacker earned a starting gig at the will linebacker position to begin his sophomore campaign. Harris took advantage of the opportunity, as he ranked second on the defense with 79 stops, seven of those being tackles for loss, along with 4.5 sacks and an interception. The dynamic 6'2" linebacker from University Lab High School in Baton Rouge, LA, was selected as a semifinalist for the Butkus Award in 2020 and was awarded Defensive Player of the Week five times by his Alabama coaching staff last season.
Harris' big frame and long wingspan are destined to give opposing offensive lines nightmares, which could end up making him the toughest player the Vols offense faces this season. His ability to effortlessly move in coverage and put his raw athleticism on display in space makes him an all-around stud on this Alabama defense.
The Vols visit the defending champions in Tuscaloosa for a Week 8 matchup that will be demanding for the Tennessee offense if they are to try and slow Christian Harris down.
Florida CB Kaiir Elam
Another player entering his junior year, Florida Gators cornerback Kaiir Elam is going into his second year as a full-time starter. The Riviera Beach, Florida, native concluded his sophomore year with 39 tackles, 2 picks, 11 pass breakups, and a fumble recovery, which came in their postseason loss against Oklahoma, in 12 games. In 2019, Elam was not as dominant but still was serviceable for the Gators defense in his 13 appearances and 5 starts, totaling 11 tackles, 4 passes defended, and 3 interceptions, making him the 10th Gator in 25 years to have 3 interceptions during their freshman campaign.
The four-star, 6'1" versatile corner played high school ball at The Benjamin School in Palm Beach, Florida, where he helped lead them to the 2018 FHSAA Class 3A Regional Final and the 2017 Semifinals.
Elam's physicality will cap opposing wide receivers' ability to get separation, and the fact that he is a ball hawk will scare quarterbacks, making him one of the best 5 defensive players Tennessee will face in 2021. The matchup between Tennessee and the Florida Gators comes early in Week 4 of the season, making the Gators the first SEC opponent Tennessee will have in 2021.
Georgia LB's Nolan Smith and Adam Anderson
The pass-rushing duo of Nolan Smith and Adam Anderson were too hard to pick between. Both guys will step into expanded roles and have extremely high ceilings, so they will share a spot on the list. Smith is also entering his junior year in Athens, hoping to continue his solid collegiate career with Georgia. Smith burst onto the scene during his freshman year with 2.5 sacks and 18 total stops, along with 15 quarterback pressures in 14 games. The five-star recruit from IMG Academy was the co-winner of the Defensive Newcomer of the Year award for the Bulldogs in 2019 and followed it up with a solid sophomore campaign. Smith was heavily involved in all of the Bulldogs 10 games in the 2020 shortened season, totaling 22 stops and 20 quarterback pressures with 2.5 sacks.
At IMG Academy, Smith earned his five-star prospect rating, as he had 14.5 out of 47 total tackles go for a loss, tacking on 6.5 sacks in his senior season. The Savannah, Georgia, native returned to his home state to play college ball after committing to Georgia back in early 2017.
Other than linebacker, Smith has experience playing on the defensive line due to his time being a full-time defensive lineman for Calvary Day High School during his freshman and sophomore years. Smith is the complete package. At 235 pounds, Smith is a driving force when rushing the quarterback and knows a thing or two about stifling a run game, and his speed should not be taken lightly. In 2020, the Tennessee-Georgia matchup saw the Vols fail to have a 30-yard rusher, and Nolan Smith will not make that feat any easier for the Vols to accomplish in 2021. A Week 10 Georgia home matchup is in store for Tennessee this season, and Nolan Smith leading the Bulldog defense will likely make life hard for whoever is under center for the Vols in Neyland that day.
Anderson is entering his senior season for Georgia. Anderson has appeared in every single one of the 38 games he could have for the Bulldogs dating back to 2018, and he has accumulated 11 tackles for loss on 36 total tackles with 9 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. Anderson's most productive season came in the shortened 2020 season, as Anderson registered 6.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery in just 10 games, which are statistics that make it clear why Anderson deserves to be on this list.
The Rome, Georgia, native played high school ball at Rome High School, where he recorded 10 sacks on 63 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, and an interception during his senior year. Anderson's highly productive senior campaign in high school won him the 2018 Bobby Dodd National Lineman of the Year by the Touchdown Club of Atlanta.
Adam Anderson enters his senior year in Athens hungry to increase his draft stock, and he has a tremendous supporting cast on defense to help take the load off. As mentioned earlier, star pass-rusher Nolan Smith will lead the Bulldogs linebacker room, but Anderson's experience on the field and ability to play with a lot of physicality while also hustling in coverage makes him join his fellow teammate on this list as one of the five best defensive players the Tennessee offense will go toe to toe with in the 2021 season.
Georgia DT Jordan Davis
One of the most prolific defensive lineman in all of college football makes this list as the second Bulldog and first defensive lineman mentioned. There was speculation once the 2020 collegiate football season concluded that Davis may enter the NFL Draft, but he decided to stay in Athens and develop more in his senior season at Georgia.
When the Bulldogs come to Knoxville in Week 10 of the 2021 season, Tennessee's offensive line will have their hands full in trying to block the 6'6", 340 lb unit from Charlotte, N.C.
Davis started right away as a true freshman for the Dawgs in 2018 and has not slowed down since. His best season came as a sophomore in 2019 when he racked up 18 total tackles, four-and-a-half of those being tackles for loss, two-and-a-half sacks and 18 total stops. In 2020, Davis' injuries kept him out of three of 10 games in the season, but he was still able to land a Second-team All-America selection by the AFCA.
Davis comes into his senior year hungry to improve his draft stock, and there is no better way to do it than to dominate offensive lines in the SEC, so the Vols will have to be on their best A-game to protect the pocket from Davis in the fall.
Georgia CB Derion Kendrick
The last of the five best defensive players Tennessee will face in the fall is one of the newest members of the Georgia Bulldogs, Clemson transfer cornerback Deion Kendrick, making him the third Bulldog and second corner on the list.
Kendrick had tremendous 2019 and 2020 seasons with the Tigers, earning First-Team All ACC honors in 2020 and Second-Team All ACC honors in 2019. 2019, Kendrick's sophomore season, was his first as a corner, as 2018 saw the new Bulldog record 15 receptions for 210 yards playing wide receiver for Clemson. In 2019, Kendrick shined with 51 tackles, three of them being for a loss, 2 picks and 6 pass breakups in 15 starts, while also getting work in on special teams returning two kickoffs for 51 yards and 9 punts for 16 yards.
Kendrick will be one of the toughest matchups Tennessee receivers will have to face all season, as the Rock Hill, South Carolina native looks to have another productive season in hopes of improving his draft stock.
This get for Georgia is huge, as the Bulldogs lost their two top cornerbacks to the 2021 NFL Draft in Eric Stokes and Tyson Campbell. With Kendrick, the Bulldog defense will cause even more problems for the Vols in Week 10 at Neyland Stadium, as Kendrick joins accomplished defenders such as Nolan Smith, Adam Anderson, Nakobe Dean, and Jordan Davis to round out a star-studded defensive roster for Georgia.
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