Welcome back as we take a look at early enrollees and recruiting on the defensive side of the ball. First, check out the depth chart for spring practice without the graduating seniors and transfers (note that both nickelback and weakside linebacker are shown although only one player would be on the field).
As you can see, the secondary and linebacking units return a wealth of experience and no small amount of talent, while the defensive line is somewhere between a trainwreck and a complete enigma. Because of this disparity, rather than look at early enrollees by impact overall, we'll look at where new players are expected to help each unit.
Secondary and Linebackers
The secondary is set at the core positions, with Brian Randolph and Cam Sutton firmly ensconced at strong safety and cornerback, much maligned Justin Coleman returning opposite Sutton, and McNeil a serviceable option at free safety. While McNeil will almost certainly face pressure in the fall from talented commitments like Todd Kelly, Jr., Cortez McDowell, and Rashaan Gaulden, he's likely safe for the time being, as both of the early enrollees will start out working at nickel or cornerback.
- D'Andre Payne, cornerback. 5'9, 175. Woodson, H.D., Washington, D.C. Rated 4 stars by Rivals. Payne makes up for his small stature with great speed and instincts. He claimed over 30 offers from major college programs, including Auburn, Clemson, Florida State, LSU, and Ohio State. Unless Coach Martinez is afraid to set back his development and opts to groom him exclusively at an outside position, I'd expect Payne to supplant Toney or Swafford at the nickelback position pretty much immediately. Payne is likely to be the eventual successor to Coleman's outside spot.
- Emmanuel Moseley, cornerback. 6'0, 160. Dudley, Greensboro, N.C. Rated 3 stars by Rivals. Moseley is a relatively unpolished player when compared to Payne, but makes up for it by combining NFL height with great speed. He'll likely need to work on route recognition and understanding team defensive concepts before seeing the field on anything other than special teams.
At linebacker, with A.J. Johnson deciding to return for his senior season and Curt Maggitt on the mend, the Vols are set at the middle and one of the outside positions, with only a single outside spot up for grabs. The odds on favorite for the open position remains Jalen Reeves-Maybin (JRM), assuming coaches don't move him back to the secondary.
- Jakob Johnson, middle linebacker. 6'3, 236. Jean Ribault, Jacksonville, FL. Rated 3 stars by Rivals, but 4 stars by 247sports. If you haven't heard the story of how Johnson was discovered playing for a juniors team in Germany, read it here. An incredible physical specimen, Johnson will backup A.J. Johnson at MLB while he learns the nuances of the playing the position, although it's possible he could grow into a defensive line position.
Tennessee's defensive line is long on bodies and short on experienced difference makers. Moreover, it's almost impossible to figure out who is going to line up where, short of guesswork, and everything will probably be blown up again as soon as the players who sign in the February show up on campus during the summer. Here's what we do know: last year's front four lined up with 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. For example, in last year's South Carolina game, Tennessee often lined up as follows: Jacques Smith, Dan McCullers, Daniel Hood, Corey Miller. On the chart above, I've broken down the current defensive linemen into two types (bigger and smaller), lined up roughly in order of size, with the smallest players of each type starting on the left. We don't know how they'll line up, but here are the two new additions.
- Owen Williams, defensive tackle. 6'1, 280. Butler Community College, El Dorado, KS. Rated 3 Stars by Rivals. As a JUCO player, Williams will be expected to come in and contribute to the defensive tackle rotation immediately. Squat, powerful, and deceptively quick, Williams will probably battle Danny O'Brien for Daniel Hood's old nose guard position, as he lacks the sheer size needed to fill McCullers' role.
- Dimarya Dixon, defensive end. 6'3, 265. West Mesquite, Mesquite, TX. Rated 3 stars by Rivals. Dixon is defensive end with the frame to move inside to tackle with some time spent in the weight room and at the training table. With offers from Auburn, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, Dixon is the type of prospect who would have been considered a recruiting get before the surprising success of this year's class. He's probably at least as good as the holdovers from Dooley's last few classes.