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10 Questions for 2014 #5 - Defensive Line

One of the most important position groups in the SEC is a big question mark for the Vols, but it won't be for lack of participation this time.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

This really is the first or second most important question for the Vols this year, it's just not the one we're most interested in asking right now.  The remaining four in this countdown will get more word count, but for Tennessee to return to the competitive elite atop the SEC, the defensive line needs a serious upgrade.  In part we're less interested in this question right now because of the appeal of five-star recruits Kahlil McKenzie and Tim Settle.  But those are answers for 2015.  For Tennessee to have the kind of season it wants in 2014, those on the current roster have to increase production in the trenches.

The question is deeper than an inability to get pressure on the quarterback.   Since Dan Williams was taken in the first round in 2010, the Vols have not sent a defensive lineman they signed out of high school to the NFL Draft the last four years.  Josh Ward pointed out on our podcast several years ago that Tennessee's inability to sign productive defensive tackles really dates back to Justin Harrell who signed all the way back in 2002; Harrell and Williams have been the only out-of-high-school success stories for the Vols at that position in the last dozen years.  Since Williams transfer Malik Jackson and juco Daniel McCullers were the only Vol defensive linemen taken in the draft, and I think it's fair to say McCullers was selected more for sheer size and potential than productivity.

Recruiting is the answer for the future, but it's also the root cause of the problem in the present.  While the Vols have had flashes of success at defensive end with guys like Robert Ayers and gotten serviceable play from several others, defensive tackle has been a huge issue for most of the last decade.

Here's a look at the defensive tackles the Vols have signed since Dan Williams in 2005:

  • 2006:  Blake Garretson was dismissed for a violation of team rules; Jarrod Shaw was moved to offensive line
  • 2007:  Donald Langley transferred after Phillip Fulmer was fired, Rolando Melancon never qualified, William Brimfield transferred in the Kiffin/Dooley transition
  • 2008:  Montori Hughes failed to qualify, returned to the Vols in 2009, dismissed by Derek Dooley in 2011
  • 2009:  Arthur Jeffery was dismissed by Derek Dooley
  • 2010:  JUCO John Brown never qualified; Greg Clark was a three year backup and left the team this spring
  • 2011:  JUCO Maurice Couch was a two year starter.  Allan Carson remains on the team as a backup with no meaningful experience yet.  Trevarris Saulsberry recorded four tackles as a redshirt freshman in 2012 and was injured for most of last season.
  • 2012:  JUCO Daniel McCullers was a two year starter and was drafted in the sixth round this April.  Danny O'Brien had eight tackles as a redshirt freshman backup last year.  Omari Phillips left the program following an indefinite suspension
  • 2013:  The Dooley/Butch class did not sign any designated defensive tackles; Jason Carr who might have played more there left the team following spring practice

In the eight years before Butch's legacy class in 2014 the Vols signed 15 defensive tackles, including seven four-stars (Brown, Couch, Langley, Melancon, plus the 2012 trio of McCullers, O'Brien, and Phillips).  But under Derek Dooley and Butch Jones, here's who actually started at defensive tackle:

  • 2010:  Malik Jackson, Victor Thomas
  • 2011:  Malik Jackson, Daniel Hood
  • 2012:  Maurice Couch, Daniel McCullers
  • 2013:  Daniel McCullers, Daniel Hood
Since Dan Williams left the program the Vols have started only transfers, jucos, and converted offensive linemen at defensive tackle.  That's not to say you can't have success doing it this way - the Couch/McCullers combo had us really excited this time two years ago - but overall if you're having to bank on transfers, jucos, and converted offensive linemen it means you're not doing your job on the front end in recruiting.

To that end, Butch Jones signed four-star Michael Sawyers and three-star Jashon Robertson this February, plus juco Owen Williams who immediately won a starting role in spring practice.  The Vols also have the mammoth OL/DL Charles Mosley in the fold.  They'll join O'Brien and Saulsberry, both of whom had intriguing flashes in limited action last season.

There's more sizzle at defensive end, though none of these guys were on campus this spring.  But a trio of four-stars - Derek Barnett, Joe Henderson, and Dewayne Hendrix - could look to earn playing time immediately.  Sophomore Corey Vereen inspired as a freshman last year, and the Vols could use Curt Maggitt and others at defensive end in certain situations.  Jordan Williams is also an option, especially early as freshmen try to find their way.

Tennessee is recruiting well on the defensive line again, especially looking ahead to 2015 if Butch can close the deal on elite tackle prospects.  But right now the youth that's here is going to get thrown into the fire early and often.  You feel like the linemen of the future could soon be either on the roster or on the commit list.  But there will be some growing pains between being good enough to compete for championships and where they are right now, and how soon the Vols figure out which guys are best suited to help them close that gap will be a crucial question for 2014.  There is plenty of experience at linebacker and some established talent (plus more youth) in the secondary to help them.  But the Vols have to make progress toward controlling the line of scrimmage for their defense to be ultimately successful, and will need the kind of line play we saw against South Carolina last year to get more wins like that in the meantime.  How much of that progress will we see up front this fall?