10 Questions for 2012 #6: Who plays on the defensive line?

In February, it works like this: you pickup a former Alabama end who was on the team that won the National Championship, then you add a 6'6" 380 lbs tackle, and so then of course you're going to take your one proven returning lineman who was a 4-3 tackle and make him a 3-4 end. Because UT's starting lineup on the defensive line will be Maurice Couch, Daniel McCullers, and Darrington Sentimore, and it's just obvious. And it's awesome...in February.

In mid-July, it works like this: McCullers is still the gathering storm, the yin to Cordarrelle Patterson's junior college yang. But until that storm materializes, Couch is still at tackle. And Sentimore remains behind on the depth chart, leaving the Vols with familiar names like Marlon Walls, Corey Miller, Steven Fowlkes, and Willie Bohannon, who like many on UT's defense are more familiar for longevity than production. It's the same story at tackle, where Daniel Hood and Joseph Ayers fill in the gaps. Factor in another crop of unproven names - Jordan Williams, Greg Clark, Trevarris Saulsberry, Allan Carson, Trent Taylor, and Danny O'Brien - and we've got roughly the same body count we're working with in the secondary, but with even less experience. We might even add one more in Dante Phillips, who would no doubt create even more unfounded expectations.

Even if the realistic best case scenario is pretty good - a strong second year from Couch and instant domination/occupation in the middle from McCullers - history teaches us that we shouldn't raise our expectations too high for juco products or defensive lines in general in the first year of a 3-4 defense. And if anyone is familiar with under-performance on the defensive line, it's us.

Here are the starters on the most recent UT defensive lines:

  • 2011: Jacques Smith, Maurice Couch, Malik Jackson, Marlon Walls
  • 2010: Chris Walker, Malik Jackson, Victor Thomas, Gerald Williams
  • 2009: Chris Walker, Dan Williams, Wes Brown, Ben Martin
  • 2008: Robert Ayers, Demonte Bolden, Dan Williams, Wes Brown
  • 2007: Xavier Mitchell, Demonte Bolden, Dan Williams, Antonio Reynolds
  • 2006: Xavier Mitchell, Turk McBride, Matt McGlothlin, Antonio Reynolds
  • 2005: Parys Haralson, Justin Harrell, Jesse Mahelona, Jason Hall
Though the 2005 team struggled, its defense was exceptional. And that's how far you have to go back to find a strong defensive line at UT.

There have been individual bright spots - Dan Williams and Robert Ayers were both first round draft picks, and Malik Jackson was strong as well - but in a league where defensive line is often the biggest difference between the best of the best and the merely good, the Vols have been truly behind for more than six years.

It's unreasonable to expect that to change overnight, but the pieces are promising. McCullers is the most anticipated defensive lineman since...well, maybe Maurice Couch last year, yet another example of the foolishness of expecting juco guys to be great right away. But Couch certainly got good by the end of the season, and there's hope that he could become something more this fall. Some of that will depend on where he's playing: the sooner McCullers can get in there at tackle, the sooner Couch might be able to help Tennessee at end. But history screams in its loudest voice that it will be Couch, not McCullers, starting at tackle in the Georgia Dome on August 31.

But just getting McCullers out there would make a difference, and apparently he's on campus in better shape than the coaching staff was hoping for. 6'6" 380 linemen don't grow on trees (what a horrifying visual that would be), and if the big guy can just get his hands in front of him and push, he'll make an impact in the middle by demanding attention alone. And as he gets adjusted to life in the SEC, he could truly be a unique weapon in the middle of the field for the Vols, a game-changer.

Even if this year's d-line isn't great, it must be good enough and deep enough to put an end to the mammoth drives teams like LSU and South Carolina put on the Vols last year; when you're in the neighborhood of 20 play drives and the other team doesn't have to throw it, you've got serious problems. That part has to stop right now, and this d-line has to be good enough to do it.

The good news: only Steven Fowlkes and Willie Bohannon are seniors. If we continue to play out our assumption about the offense, then perhaps the Vols can score enough points to overrule a defensive line that struggles this season, and then that defensive line can take a turn leading the way next season if/when the offense is without its star playmakers. Many a UT's lineman's best day in Knoxville was Signing Day in the last six years (Walter Fisher! Donald Langley! Rolando Melancon! Rae Sykes! John Brown!), so it's with a grain of salt that I say you can make an argument that there's more young talent on the line in Knoxville than there has been in recent years.

But if the Vols want to move forward to the SEC's upper tier, they don't appear to be going there without a solid defensive line. Are the pieces of that line on campus now? And how much of the picture will we see - and how soon with McCullers - this season?
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