Vols Knock Off Florida Gators, 38-33, To Start Season 4-0

Dan Fleser: Vols Will Sorely Miss Matthew Butler

Thursday, August 11, 2022 - by Dan Fleser
Rodney Garner cut through the usual sense of hope and optimism that pervades preseason football practice and hit a sobering note on Monday. After one week, Tennessee’s defensive line coach was missing former Vol tackle Matthew Butler.

“I’m going to be honest with you, that’s been a big void,” Garner said. “Matt, I guess we probably took it for granted how valuable he was. I don’t know that we’ve filled that role yet.”

It’s one thing for the Vols to be trying to develop a more productive running game or fill an outside receiver position.
There’s still plenty of talented players in place on that side of the football. College football analyst Greg McElroy was wildly optimistic about UT’s potential, saying in an interview with on3.com that if quarterback Hendon Hooker excels with his deep passes, the offense could be “legitimately unstoppable.”

Replacing Butler’s productivity – 47 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks – as well as his leadership is a different matter. The defensive line is weaker without him, at least for the time being. The ripple effect in turn will be felt throughout the defense. The linebacking corps hasn’t fully recovered yet from the attrition that followed former coach Jeremy Pruitt’s firing. And the secondary has lost starters Alontae Taylor and Theo Jackson from last season.

Taylor did not play in the Music City Bowl last season, forgoing the final game to fully recover from a toe injury and prepare for the NFL Draft. Without him, Purdue was unstoppable, blowtorching UT’s pass defense with 534 passing yards and five touchdown passes.

Taylor’s absence underscored the ongoing need to develop more depth on defense. The quest gets harder without him as well as Butler and Jackson. The quick-strike nature of UT’s offense, in a sense, adds to the challenge.

Defensive coordinator Tim Banks sounded cautiously optimistic earlier this month as preseason practice was about to start.

“Always confident, comfortable? I don’t know about that,” Banks said. “. . . we are definitely excited just with the number of student-athletes we have in the program at this point. When we first got here, we were struggling with depth. Now we at least feel like we have more scholarship bodies. Obviously it’s our job to figure out what they can do and put those guys in the best possible position. So, I don’t know if I’m comfortable, but we are definitely excited to have those guys here.”

In addressing the secondary, Banks said players were tried at different positions during spring practice and hinted that the process was ongoing.

The linebacker position should be better for having Juwan Mitchell back from injury. Linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary last week sounded hopeful about Mitchell.

“He’s gotten all of the surgeries behind him and he’s probably as healthy as he’s been in a long time,” Jean-Mary said. “You’re starting to see the best parts of him.”

The final word here goes to defensive end Tyler Baron. The season opener against Ball State is three weeks away. There’s still time for boundless optimism and Baron’s perspective suits the occasion. At this point, he is more than pleased with what Tennessee has on defense.   

“Saying I’m pleased would be an understatement,” Baron said.  “I’m excited about how much depth we have and how many guys we’ll be able to rotate this year. Keeping everybody fresh. When we come out, I don’t think there will be any drop-off.”

* * *

Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics from 1988-2019. He is a 2022 inductee to the Tennessee Sportswriters Hall of Fame. He can be reached at danfleser3@gmail.com.

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