Josh Heupel has heard this question before.
It took just a month into his second season as Tennessee football coach to revisit it, albeit in a week off after a signature win over Florida.
Why is your offense so good and your defense not good enough? That wasn’t asked directly, but the tone is there.
The answers are complicated. Some are inherent to the teams trained by Heupel due to his quick attacking style and are often misunderstood. Others are new problems that could cost No. 9 Tennessee (4-0, 1-0 SEC) a game or two.
But they add context that fans will wrestle with for the rest of this season and perhaps Heupel’s entire tenure. Under Heupel, for better or for worse, this gap was more the rule than the exception.
But there’s more to consider when it comes to the Vols’ defense issues and why it’s so important this season.
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Why Josh Heupel’s defense always lags behind offense
The trend is undeniable.
This is Heupel’s fifth season as head coach, three in Central Florida and two in Tennessee. All five teams ranked in the top 10 in total offense and four ranked 95th or worse in total defense.
The trend continued when Heupel was Missouri’s offensive coordinator. In 2016, the Tigers were ranked No. 13 in overall offense and No. 118 in overall defense. In 2017, they were No. 8 in overall offense and No. 83 in overall defense.
“The stats don’t always tell everything,” said Tennessee defense coordinator Tim Banks.
In fact, those yards-per-game averages are skewed by the pace and success of Heupel’s offense.
Tennessee ranks #1 in total offense and bottom-10 in possession time in FBS. Last season they had a top 10 offense and the lowest ball possession time.
That means the Vols make the most offenses in college football in the shortest amount of time. But that puts more pressure on the Tennessee defense, which has to constantly reset and get back on the field.
“Every player in our squad understands how the game normally flows,” said Heupel. “Offensively, if we don’t pick up the first first down, that can of course be a quick change.
“That’s something you don’t want to do offensively because you want to score. And you want to give your defense time to make adjustments on the sidelines.”
Nearly 80% of Tennessee’s offensive drives (39 of 49) consumed less than three minutes of play. That means his defense has to work at this pace too, both strategically and psychologically.
Achievements are rarely enjoyed. Failures seem composite.
The defenses of the other undefeated SEC East teams are working slower because they’re getting longer breaks. Only 43% of Georgia’s offensive drives (18 of 42) and 57% of Kentucky’s offensive drives (25 of 44) lasted less than three minutes.
Trends aside why this football defense is struggling in Tennessee
Heupel is more concerned with fixing issues in his current defense than trends from his tenure. The Vols beat Florida 38-33. But they did allow the Gators to gain a total of 594 yards of offense, including Anthony Richardson’s career-best 453 passing yards.
After viewing the feature film, Heupel sees plenty of room for improvement in the off week.
“Tackling, tasks, understanding (the scheme)”, said Heupel. “We’re not playing with the right angles and technique that may have allowed (Richardson) to get out of the bag. Tackling on the soccer field wasn’t good enough at times. And then there were also some gaps in coverage.”
Tennessee ranks third in the SEC in rush defense. Most of its problems have arisen against the pass, especially with soft coverage that gives recipients ample room to work.
Eight defenders played against Florida, but none had lasting success. And cornerbacks Warren Burrell and Dee Williams are out injured.
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Heupel wants closer coverage when the Vols play at LSU (3-1, 1-0) on Oct. 8 (midday ET, ESPN).
“It’s just about being a little bit better in the basics and technique, having your eyes in the right place and understanding situational football,” said Heupel. “It’s things they can and will do as we move on.”
Why advances in defense are essential
Heupel’s best teams are offensively great and defensively timely, even if they allow a lot of yards
At UCF, his 2018 team was #11 in red zone defense and his 2019 team was #5 in third down defense. Both were good when they had to be, and these teams had a combined record of 22-4.
Heupel gets along well with his formula. After all, Tennessee’s electric offensive is its best weapon, and it’s in the top 10 in the polls for the first time since 2006.
But greater challenges are yet to come, requiring progress and a higher standard of defense. After the LSU game, the Vols face top-flight quarterbacks in Alabama’s Bryce Young, Kentucky’s Will Levis and Georgia’s Stetson Bennett in their next three SEC games.
Beating any of these teams could determine whether Tennessee has a solid season or a special one.
Reach Adam Sparks at [email protected] and on Twitter @AdamSparks.