<
>

Most important position: Tennessee Volunteers

If you ask coaches, they’ll tell you over and over again that winning takes offense, defense and special teams. (Forget kickers at your own risk.)

But that’s painting with too broad of strokes. Because inevitably every season comes down to one facet of the game, whether it’s a weakness that’s exploited or a potential question mark that becomes a strength.

Alabama doesn’t reach last season’s playoff without Blake Sims emerging at quarterback. Auburn, a year earlier, doesn’t make it to the title game without its offensive line. On the flip side, imagine how much better Florida would have been with a quarterback last year. What about Ole Miss with a running back or South Carolina with a defensive line?

So what will it be for each team this year? What’s the one position group that’s most important to each program’s success?

All week we’re attempting to answer that question. Today we turn out attention to Tennessee.

Tennessee’s most important position: Defensive back

Butch Jones had to think about it for a moment.

“Good question,” he said when asked about the position that could help him reach Atlanta. He paused for more than 10 seconds to figure out the proper response. “I’d say defensively, our back end. But in order for our back end to take us there, we’re going to need some guys up front to develop in a hurry.

“And then I would say, offensively, quarterback and running backs. And then, it’s kind of a two-part answer to your question because in order for them to do that, the guys up front need to continue to develop and step up as well.”

It’s hard to blame Jones for failing to narrow the field to one. It’s true that you can’t do much of anything on either side of the ball if you’re not winning the battles up front. But what he won’t say, we will: The offensive and defensive lines should be fine.

Now that’s not to say they’re not going to be important, but they’re not the most important positions. Because if they were going to fall apart, it would have been last year when the Vols inexplicably returned zero starters on either line. How they survived that is almost beyond comprehension.

So assuming there’s nowhere to go but up on the lines based on experience, and giving quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara the benefit of the doubt, the difference for Tennessee might indeed come down to the defensive backs.

Unlike some position groups discussed in this conference-wide series, Tennessee’s secondary is already pretty good. Last season they ranked fourth in the SEC in passing yards per game allowed (196.2) and third in interceptions per pass attempt (4.2 percent).

But they can improve. Their 12.7 yards per completion ranked next to last in the SEC last year, and their touchdowns per attempt (4.2 percent) ranked an uninspiring ninth.

Given that DBs Justin Coleman and Michael Williams are gone, there are some questions that need to be answered.

With that said, there are a lot of parts to like in Tennessee’s secondary. Cam Sutton is one of the more underrated cornerbacks in the country, and having seniors Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil back starting at safety should be a big help.

But to go from good to great will mean that more than a few DBs step up. And the top candidates to do so are former stud recruits Todd Kelly Jr. and Emmanuel Moseley. Both came off the bench as freshmen last season and made big plays, and now they’re expected to do even more. If highly touted junior college transfer Justin Martin can work his way into the mix at cornerback, that opens up a lot of options for Jones and his staff.

With depth and potential star power, there’s no reason not to like the secondary’s chances this season.

If the defensive backs follow through on their talent and emerge as one of the league’s top pass defenses, it could be the difference between the rebuild at Tennessee continuing to take baby steps in 2015 versus catapulting into a competitive program on a national scale.