The Tennessee Vols are replacing the entirety of last year's much maligned defensive line, and the coaching staff has scoured the country for both bodies and talent: two early enrollees and up to seven (!) additional 2014 recruits will join the eleven returning players.
Who's returning from last year:
- DE Jordan Williams (senior)
- DE Corey Vereen (sophomore)
- DE LaTroy Lewis (redshirt sophomore)
- DE Jaylen Miller (sophomore)
- DE Kendall Vickers (redshirt freshman)
- DE Malik Brown (redshirt freshman)
- DT Gregory Clark (redshirt senior)
- DT Trevarris Saulsberry (redshirt junior)
- DT Allan Carson (redshirt junior)
- DT Danny O'Brien (redshirt sophomore)
- DT Jason Carr (sophomore)
Who's already on campus (from the class of 2014):
- DT Dimarya Mixon (3* 247 composite, 3* 247, 3* Rivals, 3* ESPN, 3* Scout)
- DT Owen Williams (JUCO, two years eligibility remaining)(3* 247 composite, 3* 247, 3* Rivals, 3* ESPN, 3* Scout)
Who's expected to sign on Wednesday:
- DE Dewayne Hendrix (4* 247 composite, 4* 247, 4* Rivals, 4* ESPN, 4* Scout)
- DE Derek Barnett (4* 247 composite, 4* 247, 4* Rivals, 4* ESPN, 4* Scout)
- DT/OL Charles Mosley (4* 247 composite, 4* 247, 3* Rivals, 3* ESPN, 4* Scout)
- DE Joe Henderson (3* 247 composite, 4* 247, 4* Rivals, 3* ESPN, 3* Scout)
- DT/OG Jashon Robertson (3* 247 composite, 3* 247, 3* Rivals, 3* ESPN, 3* Scout)
Who will be deciding on Signing Day:
- DT Michael Sawyers (3* 247 composite, 4* 247, 4* Rivals, 4* ESPN, 3* Scout)
- DE Cory Thomas (3* 247 composite, 3* 247, 3* Rivals, 3* ESPN, 3* Scout)
There's no way around it; the 2014 Tennessee defensive line is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. That's what happens when you take a disappointing defensive line (with the exception of National Beard Team member Daniel Hood) and remove every starter. But perhaps there's a key: if you remember from my Defensive Depth Chart Preview, last year's front four lined up a quicker, pass-rushing end on one side (Leo), next to the largest defensive tackle (DT), a smaller defensive tackle (listed as a nose guard on the UT SID depth chart, so he may have been two-gapping), and a larger, stronger defensive end (DE) on the other side.
At weakside end (Leo), the Vols return an intriguing player in sophomore Corey Vereen, who flashed talent with a sack, a tackle-for-loss, a pass broken-up, two QB hurries, and thirteen tackles while playing limited snaps. Depending on how the line is arranged, LaTroy Lewis, Jaylen Miller, and Kendall Vickers are also candidates to take snaps at this position, which requires speed and the ability to pursue over bulk. Because of that depth, the Vols only have a single weakside commit: Joe Henderson, a 6'3", 230-pound end from Ohio who will likely redshirt (he was initially supposed to enroll early, but academic issues prevented it).
At strongside end, senior Jordan Williams will likely start after backing up Jacques Smith at weakside end last year, mostly due to the Marlon Walls-Corey Miller combo on the other side. There's not a ton of depth, either, following Jason Carr's move to defensive tackle, with only Malik Brown and walk-on Charles Folger practicing at that position. Strongside end is probably the hardest position to recruit for a 4-3, and Tennessee coaches spent an enormous amount of time evaluating and pursuing players before finally landing four-star recruits Dewayne Hendrix and Derek Barnett.
Hendrix, a 6'5", 254-pound end from Illinois, claimed offers from Florida, Ohio State, and USC among more than 20 others. If you're looking for an instant impact player on the defensive line, it's probably Hendrix, whose recruitment took off after a dominant showing on the camp/all-star circuit; as the highest rated recruit at a position of need, he could start from day one. It's an outside possibility, but keep an eye on Hendrix on National Signing Day, as he took an official visit to Missouri on January 24th, and Tigers coaches are trying to sell him on being the next Michael Sam.
Barnett is a 6'3.5", 265-pound end from football powerhouse Brentwood Academy outside of Nashville who claimed offers from Florida State, Ohio State, and 15 other schools. Brentwood Academy has served as an Auburn feeder school for years, and his commitment to the Vols was a huge coup for Butch Jones' in-state recruiting efforts. On the field, Barnett is a quick, powerful player with the versatility to play end and tackle.
Recruiting target: Cory Thomas is currently committed to the Vols, but he took official visits to Clemson (on 1/17/2014) and Mississippi State (on 1/24/2014) in recent weeks, and he tweeted (since deleted) about Tennessee taking him for granted. Thomas was in Knoxville this past weekend on an official visit to Tennessee, along with fellow Vols target Michael Sawyers, giving coaches the last word in his recruitment. At 6'5.5", 281 pounds, three-star Thomas has a giant, powerful frame, although he'll likely need to redshirt to take full advantage of his natural gifts.
At defensive tackle, the Vols will likely rotate redshirt senior Greg Clark, redshirt junior Trevarris Saulsberry, and sophomore Danny O'Brien, with junior college early enrollee Owen Williams, Allan Carson and Jason Carr providing depth. Tennessee's other early enrollee at defensive tackle, Dimarya Mixon, will likely redshirt. If coaches decide to play with a two-gapping nose tackle,1 Clark would likely start alongside either Saulsberry or O'Brien, although coaches may decide to move back to a more conventional 4-3 scheme without a difference maker like Daniel McCullers.
On Signing Day, the Vols will bring in at least two players with the talent to play on either the offensive or defensive lines. Tennessee won a major recruiting battle with Alabama for four-star dreadnought-class human Charles Mosley, a 6'5", 350-pound giant who could succeed Daniel McCullers at defensive tackle or Tiny Richardson at offensive tackle, depending on his development in the weight program. Seriously, this guy is a huge get. Jashon Robertson, a 6'3", 295-pound former Vanderbilt commit, is a physically imposing, smart player from one of Nashville's most exclusive private high schools, Montgomery Bell Academy. Robertson will likely redshirt, and could end up as an offensive guard (he played both ways in high school), depending on where coaches see the most need.
Recruiting target: Michael Sawyers is another former Vanderbilt commit and smart school kid, having played at the Ensworth School in Nashville. Sawyers had been committed to Vandy since the summer, and was one of the first players to receive an offer from Penn State following Franklin's hire. Tennessee, Ole Miss, Notre Dame, Oregon, and Georgia Tech are all in pursuit of the 6'2", 300-pound four-star defensive tackle, with Georgia Tech (1/17/2014), Ole Miss (1/24/2014), and Tennessee (2/1/2014) all earning official visits on back-to-back-to-back dates. Sawyers is the last remaining difference-maker on the Tennessee recruiting board, and Ole Miss is the only real competition here. He's one to follow closely on Signing Day, but my gut says he follows fellow former Vandy commit Robertson to Knoxville.
1. In most 4-3 schemes, a defensive tackle attacks a single gap between O-linemen. In a two-gapping scheme, a defensive player is responsible for holding the point of attack and controlling both gaps. Needless to say, this is usually a gigantic, athletic player.↩
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