(If you're lost, we're getting ready to celebrate the one year anniversary of this metaphor.)
Here's how bad it's been at defensive tackle once we get past (converted end) Malik Jackson: incoming juco Maurice Couch may be the player the Vols can least afford to lose this year, and we've never even seen him play.
If you trust the roster, Couch has 25 pounds on Jackson and also outweighs every other defensive tackle that is projected to see the field this fall. While Jackson became a disruptive force once he was moved to tackle, Couch needs to be the thing the Vols were missing all of last year: somebody big enough in the trenches to make a real difference.
If it's not Couch, who will it be? Converted end Corey Miller? Converted offensive lineman Daniel Hood? Former walk-on Joseph Ayers?
We know the offensive line is young, but they were even younger last year. We don't know if Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter can be a real one-two threat in the SEC, but we've seen flashes of brilliance. We don't know who the best combination of defensive backs are, but the sizeable body count and even distribution of old experience and young talent suggests we'll get it figured out. And even though Herman Lathers is out and Austin Johnson may face a suspension, at least the options at linebacker - John Propst, Daryl Vereen, Greg King, and others - we've seen in meaningful situations before.
But so, so much for Tennessee's defense is riding on shoulders we've never even seen in a Tennessee uniform.
A more positive way to look at this is to bring up that UT's uncertainty at one defensive tackle spot isn't nearly as bad as the uncertainty we faced this time each of the last two years on the offensive line. Because the Vols are so young everywhere, we've at least seen each of the other 21 projected starters in meaningful situations before.
So given the choice of starting a freshman converted tight end at tackle in 2009, starting an entirely new offensive line in 2010, or starting a highly coveted juco transfer at defensive tackle in 2011, I'll take this scenario every time. Couch could be great, but at this point if he just stays healthy and lives up to some of the massive hype he's accumulated, I'll take it.
But defensive tackle is an issue because the Vols really have little depth behind Jackson and Couch; this time next year we'll probably be having the same conversation after Jackson graduates, which is frustrating. Montori Hughes and Rae Sykes are no longer with the team, leaving even fewer potatoes in the sack this season.
Anchored by Jackson, the defensive line must mature quickly like every other unit on this team. It was Jackson's move to tackle that helped spark their late run, but that too must be tempered by the schedule in November. Still, the Vols gave up 183.8 rushing yards per game between Oregon and South Carolina last fall, then gave up just 128 per game in November/December. Hopefully that change had more to do with Jackson than the schedule, and Couch will follow suit this fall. The Vols have been pushed around plenty in the front seven. Even if we don't have the bodies to play in the other team's backfield, just breaking even in that fight would be an improvement.
Maurice Couch is the most important newcomer on the team, the one guy we haven't seen that we need the most right away. Best case scenario, we've got two tackles who can dominate in a conference that multiple coaches called the best because of line play at media days last week. So hopefully we're not making any Couch Potato jokes this fall. But can he or anyone else separate themselves from the rest of the sack?