Tim Banks provides assessment of Tennessee’s defense ahead of first game

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Tennessee will kick off its 2021 season under first-year head Josh Heupel on Sept. 2 against Bowling Green.

Ahead of the Vols’ season-opening contest, first-year defensive coordinator Tim Banks met with media and discussed Tennessee’s defense.

Below is a transcript of Banks’ media availability provided by the University of Tennessee.

On how the linebacker unit has grown through camp

“I think the biggest thing we have depth right now. Obviously, we got here in the spring (and) we had guys who were banged up, trying to learn a new system. Having some transfers in and obviously getting some guys healthy is giving those guys the ability to compete better. There’s a lot more urgency within the room. Still some things we obviously want to do better but overall, I’m pleased with the depth that we’re developing, and I think we’re heading in the right direction.”

On the balance when it comes to game planning for the opponent while playing to your strengths

“I think, particularly with the first game, it’s more of what do we do well? Being able to play to our strengths and making sure our guys understand very clearly what we’re trying to get done. Obviously, your first opponent, particularly if they’re a team that’s returning a lot of starters, you have an idea of what you think you might get, but at the end of the day it’s a new season. I’m sure those guys have worked on some different things, so we want to just make that we understand what we’re trying to get done to give us the best opportunity to succeed.”

NEXT: Tim Banks provides assessment of Vols’ defense

On what he believes the defense does really well at this point heading into the season opener

“As cliché as it may sound, I think the guys are playing extremely hard. I think at the end of the day, we’re doing a better job of understanding our fits and responsibilities within every package that we have. Now, exactly which package we run the most will be determined by who we’re playing and what they present, the challenges and opportunities we have. At the end of the day, I think for us right now we’re just doing a better job overall executing and playing extremely hard.”

On how he feels the players understand the different schemes and how many reliable pass rushers they have

“I feel good with the guys in terms of the grasp that they have of the defense. Obviously, doing it under the lights and doing it at practice, it’s another step that you’re taking, but at the end of the day thus far, I feel really good with what we’re doing.

“As far as pass rushers go, I think it’s still that work in progress. We feel like we have some guys up front that have taken some strides in that way. But we also feel like we need to generate some more pass rush. We have different ways to get that done.”

NEXT: Tim Banks provides assessment of Vols’ defense

On what this coming week will look like in terms of install and practice

“I think it’s always different. I think if you speak for us right now, we’re really finishing up things that we have. We had a couple things on deck that we still wanted to make sure we took look at. Ultimately, we’re just trying to game plan. What kind of wrinkles do we have within the system or within the plays that we already have in. Putting in a whole new package and things of that nature, I don’t see us doing that at this point.”

On senior DB Alontae Taylor and the increase in competition at the cornerback position

“Yeah, I think so. Obviously, being an older guy, I think he had pretty good urgency from the beginning, but I think any time that you add other guys into the mix and those guys continue to push and continue to work, I think it becomes contagious. Alontae is a guy who’s always had great work ethic. He’s worked extremely hard during the offseason (and) we saw the fruits of that during camp and we’re hoping that he’ll take even another step going into the season.”

NEXT: Tim Banks provides assessment of Vols’ defense

On being able to tackle more and avoiding targeting penalties

“We spent a lot of time talking about body position, obviously your feet and making sure you keep your face out of it, you know, safety first, I think we all know that. To be honest, over the last five years or so, kids have gotten better because the coaches have gotten better teaching. Ultimately, when you start tackling and tackling at high speed when the lights come on, you hope the kids will revert back to their training because we’re not tackling live every day, more footwork and hand placement. As the lights come on and we have more opportunities to do it, hopefully the tackling will be better. To your point, I think we have done a good job emphasizing safety first, we will have to see what happens Thursday night, but I think those guys will protect themselves and obviously our opponent.”

On finding a signal caller with a new defense

“We put a lot on our linebackers, getting them to help set the front, help reiterate what we are trying to get done from the back to the front. Those guys (the linebackers) have been great with it to be quite honest with you. All of those guys get their chances, whether it’s our MIKE or our WILL, everyone has a certain level of communication that they have to have with the defense. It’s still a work in progress, but to this point Coach BJ (Brian Jean-Mary) has done a great job staying on top of those guys to the point where we are head-and-shoulders above where we were in the spring.”

NEXT: Tim Banks provides assessment of Vols’ defense

On Kwauze Garland and Solon Page III

“Both of those guys have shown flashes. I think, like with anything, the older guy, he hasn’t played a lot of snaps in the game, but he’s gotten special teams reps and has gotten better from the spring to the fall. Pakk (Kwauze Garland), he’s a kid who obviously transitioned from a defensive back to a linebacker. I think, for the most part, you can see his athleticism because of his background. He’s working hard every day, putting it all together to become a well-rounded linebacker, so to speak. I like both of those guys to be honest. At the end of the day, they are going to help Tennessee this year.”

On specialty situation guys with a clear-cut strength

“I think that is vital to anything. We’ve got to identify what every one of these kids brings to the table, what are their strengths, what are their liabilities? If you have a legitimate pass rusher or a guy who is really good in coverage, when the time is right you want to showcase them. If you can develop a role on this defense to help us win, we will find you, we will develop you, and give you a chance to showcase it.”

NEXT: Tim Banks provides assessment of Vols’ defense

On how many cornerbacks are ready for the opener

“That’s a tough question. It is probably a fluid situation. We’re still trying to figure that out. We feel like we have three guys who we think will play a considerable amount of reps and we have a couple of guys who are pushing for that fourth spot and even that fifth spot. We have different packages, obviously, where all the guys will have opportunities. As far as that first unit, that first rotation, we feel pretty good about three guys, but that fourth or fifth spot are still a work in progress.”

On the nickel and STAR spots

“We feel good about our first one. We have a strong battle for the second and third spot. Theo (Jackson) has done a great job for us all camp, extremely athletic for his size and does a great job of understanding schematically what we’re trying to accomplish. We have a couple of guys who are having a strong camp and (we’ll) get it all figured out in the next day or so.”

NEXT: Tim Banks provides assessment of Vols’ defense

On what he’s seen from Juwan Mitchell

“(Juwan) is a go-go guy. He goes extremely hard. You see him start to settle in, how we do things and how we go about our business. He’s a football player. He loves to play when he’s between those lines. He’s a physical kid, probably runs a little better than we thought on tape, so we’re excited to see what he does on Thursday. He’s been a guy who’s playing really hard for us and playing fast. He looks like a linebacker.”

On the adjustments required to avoid targeting penalties

“It’s always tough. Refs have a tough job. But at the end of the day, if they’re going to err, they’re always going to err on safety. Which for us in this game of football, we all want guys to be able to go home afterwards and see their loved ones. I played defensive back. I understand how hard it is, but at the end of the day, we’re going to do what’s best for the game of football. We’re going to try to teach it the right way, and hopefully we can execute it the right way and let the chips fall where they may.”

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On Omari Thomas’ production in preseason camp

“(Omari) has worked really hard. I think our whole front has worked hard. Coach (Rodney) Garner has done a nice job continuing to push those guys and get them going. It’s going to be a little bit by committee up there. For us to play at the level that we all want to play at, we’re going to need to be good up front. It might have to be by committee, so (Omari) is part of that mix. He’s working hard. How much of a role he carves out is yet to be determined, like it is with a lot of those guys up front.”

On what the defensive line needs to accomplish prior to next week’s season opener

“Just stay in the process. I know that’s cliché, but the reality of it is we’re still working. We’re finishing up, just playing hard. How many guys will we play? As many that earn the opportunity. You get what you earn. Again, understanding big-picture wise, for us to play at a high level, we’re going to need to be able to rotate guys. We aren’t rotating guys if they’re not ready to play at the standard that we’ve established. The way I see it right now, Coach Garner’s doing a good job with developing not just our first group, but the second group and hopefully even some of the third group will have an opportunity to play. At the end of the day, (it’s) no different for the d-line, the linebackers, defensive backs – you get what you earn. How do you earn it? Through your performance not just one day, but the consistency in your daily approach. I think (Omari Thomas) and the rest of those d-linemen, I think those guys have bought into that, and I think they’re working extremely hard to make sure they earn the right to step between those lines and take the field.”

NEXT: Tim Banks provides assessment of Vols’ defense

On Brandon Turnage and Kamal Hadden’s impact as transfers

“They’re still fighting and pushing and clawing and scratching. I think the thing that they’ve afforded us right now is some flexibility. Being able to play inside, being able to play outside, being able to move some different guys around. We’re pleased that they’re here. Those guys will carve out some sort of role. Whether it be a starter, whether it be a backup, I think that’s yet to be determined. Ultimately, I think the fact that they’re here, they’ve already made us better.”

On his impressions of transfer DL Da’Jon Terry

“Power. Power and strength. We knew that he was a kid that played hard on tape. He hasn’t disappointed. He’s a physical kid, he’s big. He’s obviously learning our system and how we go about our business, but we’re pleased with him. Talk about a wonderful kid, a kid who wants to do right, wants to be great, takes coaching. I’m excited for him. I’m really looking forward to watching him play and help this defense win.”