In raw terms, NC State and Tennessee finished 2011 in the same neighborhood defensively. State gave up about 16 more yards per game, while Tennessee allowed a tenth of a yard more per play. In the secondary, State had an obvious edge in pass efficiency defense, though both teams gave up about seven yards per pass attempt.
Where State differentiates itself, of course, is in the turnover department. The Pack's secondary intercepted more than four times as many passes as the Volunteers' secondary. The Volunteers have good talent and plenty of experience in this group, which could pay more tangible dividends in 2012.
Tennessee's secondary wasn't anything close to a disaster relative to FBS as a whole, but the SEC is so good on that side of the ball that they did not fare well relative to their conference peers:
Corner was a position of struggle for UT last year. The Vols rotated a number of players at the position throughout the season and allowed 13 pass plays of 30 yards or more, sometimes because the opposing receiver was simply faster. UT was 10th in the SEC in passing efficiency defense despite decent yards-per-game numbers.
This is happening at about the best position possible for Tennessee. Again, I stress, it's never good to lose a player of Lanier's ilk, so don't take this as anything orange-tinted, but UT essentially had three starters at cornerback in Coleman, Lanier and Waggner. Now, they've got two. But there is a bunch of talent at the cornerback position that can step in and possibly provide quality snaps. Eric Gordon has started games in the past, as has. Tino Thomas participated in spring drills and looked like a quality player. moved over from running back and looked like he may eventually help if the Orange & White game is any indication. Deion Bonner and Daniel Gray have the ability -- especially Bonner -- to come in and immediately contribute.
Lanier started nine games in 2011 and finished sixth on the team in tackles; as a mainstay on last year's defense, he figured to hold down a starting corner spot in 2012. Prentiss Waggner (6-2, 182) and Justin Coleman (5-10, 182) figure to be the guys at the corner spots with Lanier out of the mix, as RTT notes above. Coleman played in all 12 of Tennessee's games in 2011, starting four. Waggner, a redshirt senior, has 37 games of experience, including 25 consecutive starts. He split time between safety and corner in 2011.
Beyond those two, there's senior Marsalis Teague (5-11, 182), who has 23 career starts to his credit. Eric Gordon (5-9, 190) appeared in 10 games as a reserve last season, and true freshman Deion Bonner (5-11, 178) was a highly sought-after recruit in the southeast before a poor decision derailed his ride to UGa, among other potential landing spots. (Derek Dooley had to defend his decision to sign Bonner, but really, if you're Dooley and UT, you sign Bonner 10 times out of 10.)
At safety, the Vols figure to go with sophomore Brian Randolph (6-0, 195), who was fifth on the team in tackles as a true freshman in 2011, and (if healthy) junior Brent Brewer (6-1, 214). Brewer suffered a torn ACL in late October of last season, and as with receiver Justin Hunter, there are going to be lingering questions until he proves himself in live action. Brewer is the old man of the group--he'll be 25 in December--because he spent 3+ years in the Brewers' minor league system before joining UT ahead of the 2010 season. He started eight games in 2011 prior to the knee injury.
Tennessee also has junior Byron Moore (6-0, 193) at its disposal, and he should get decent playing time regardless of Brewer's status. Moore played in 11 games last year, starting two.
The Volunteers hired a new defensive coordinator during the offseason and they're moving to a more press-heavy style of defense. The talent here is fine but it remains to be seen how they adjust to the new system; Lanier would have given Tennessee a pair of corners over six feet tall, but now they're going to have to go with a corner alongside Waggner who isn't especially big.