Ranking Tennessee’s Five Most Important Defensive Players Entering The 2023 Season

Ranking Tennessee's Five Most Important Defensive Players Entering The 2023 Season

Photo By Emma Corona/Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee football starts fall camp in less than a week as they enter a pivotal third season under head coach Josh Heupel.

The Vols’ defense is looking to take another step forward this season after improving against the run in 2022 while still having major issues defending the pass.

Tennessee lost Jeremy Banks, Byron Young and Trevon Flowers to professional football but return the majority of its contributors.

Let’s take a look at the five most important players for Tennessee’s defense to flourish in 2023.

More From RTI: Ranking The Five Most Important Tennessee Offensive Players Entering 2023
No. 5: S Wesley Walker

There’s two areas Tennessee can upgrade at to improve their pass defense: secondary play and pass rush.

Walker fits the first area. The Georgia Tech transfer was a backup a season ago but played well when he got his chances— particularly in the Orange Bowl against Clemson.

The Vols’ safety play was largely putrid last season. Walker is poised to fill the starting spot Trevon Flowers leaves vacant. If Walker can build upon his strong close to the 2022 season it would go a long way to helping Tennessee’s secondary take a step forward.

No. 4: LEO Joshua Josephs

On to pass rushers who can take a step forward. Josephs flashed in his limited playing time as a freshman, recording his lone sack in the first half of the Vols’ win over LSU.

Josephs looks the part and definitely has the talent. The question is whether he’s able to make that leap as a sophomore or needs one more year of improving before becoming a high level SEC player.

Replacing Byron Young at LEO is one of the biggest things Tennessee has to do this season. Josephs is one of the top contenders to do so.

No. 3: LB Aaron Beasley

I interrupt the defensive back and edge rusher onslaught to point out an important inside linebacker. Beasley is unique on this list because because we’ve already seen him play at a high level and he’s started for two years for Josh Heupel and defensive coordinator Tim Banks.

Beasley was a preseason All-SEC snub and has the potential to be one of the best linebackers in the SEC this season. While linebacker has the potential to be a strong position for Tennessee, Beasley playing an All-SEC level could take the Vols’ defense to another level.

No. 2: DB Doneiko Slaughter

Slaughter came on for Tennessee last season starting with the Kentucky game. In a defensive back room that often played tentative, Slaughter played physically and with confidence and ended up being the Vols’ best defensive back.

If he can take another step forward he could turn into a high level SEC defensive back. That’s something the Vols were missing a season ago and it would go a long way to helping their pass defense improve.

The question for Slaughter is what position does he play? He’s bounced around all three defensive back spots in his career but ended last season at corner and worked there again in spring practice. He’ll likely start the season at corner but if one of the Vols’ young corners can step up, could he move to safety? It’ll be an intriguing storyline to watch this season.

No. 1: LEO Roman Harrison

The redshirt senior is Tennessee’s best option to replace Byron Young’s productivity. He’s been a solid player for Tennessee for a number of years. The question is whether he has another gear in him to turn into a seven-plus sack edge rusher.

Harrison totaled three sacks a season ago and Tennessee’s defensive coaches spoke highly of him in spring practice.

While Tennessee has a number of young edge rushers who could step up into a big role this season, it’s now or never for Harrison.

Honorable mentions

DB Christian Charles

Charles flashed at safety before suffering an injury as a freshman and struggled at corner last season. He moved back to safety in spring practice. If he can find comfort there and become a starter it would be a big step to building talent and depth at the safety spot.

DE Tyler Baron

Another now-or-never guy along Tennessee’s defensive line, Baron has flashed in games and has been a constant for Tennessee’s defensive line the last few seasons. But after totaling four sacks as a sophomore and 2.5 as a junior, can he take another step forward and become a consistent pass rushing threat and NFL Draft candidate?

DT Omari Thomas

Like Beasley, Thomas is a fringe All-SEC guy. We know he’s a good player and will start, but can he find another gear and become one of the best interior defensive linemen in the SEC?

CB Gabe Jeudy-Lally

I mentioned one of Tennessee’s young cornerbacks (Jordan Matthews and Rickey Gibson) contributing, but what about the BYU transfer. Jeudy-Lally was a solid started at BYU. If he can be a solid starter in the SEC, the Vols will be better at cornerback this season.

Author: Ethan Moore