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Tennessee Vols National Signing Day Preview: Defensive Line

Everything you need to know about Tennessee's recruiting along the defensive line.

Barnett playing a real life version of Hungry Hungry Hippos. "Give me that ball!"
Barnett playing a real life version of Hungry Hungry Hippos. "Give me that ball!"
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee's Defensive Line Philosophy

Before we get to recruiting, let's take a look at what defensive coordinator John Jancek is trying to do with his defensive line, and what types of players he's looking to recruit to make his defense work. Tennessee's base defense is called the 4-3 Under, which gives us two basic elements of what the Vols are trying to do:

  1. Tennessee will usually line up with four defensive linemen and three linebackers (4-3); and,
  2. The defensive tackles are aligned to the weakside1 of the offensive line (Under), instead of to the strongside (Over).

Aligning the defensive tackles to the weakside of the formation instead of the strongside means that the weakside defensive tackle (also called the "under" tackle or 3-tech) and the weakside defensive end (5-tech) are matched up one-on-one with the offensive guard and offensive tackle on the weakside of the formation. This helps the defense dictate what sorts of things an offense can call by taking away opportunities for the offensive line to double team the defensive linemen on the weakside of the formation. Of course, there are also drawbacks to this formation, in that the strongside defensive tackle (also called the "nose" tackle or the 0/1-tech) is always lined up against two offensive linemen -- the center and the strongside guard.

In the image below, the offense is lined up in a split back formation with the quarterback under center, which is a formation typically used by pro-style offenses like the Georgia Bulldogs. The defense is shown lined up with the starters from last year: defensive tackle Danny O'Brien is at the nose, defensive tackle Jordan Williams is at the under tackle, defensive end Corey Vereen is at weakside defensive end, defensive end Derek Barnett is at strongside defensive end, and the usual starters at linebacker are present. The little numbers under the offensive line are used by coaches to show how the defensive lineman is supposed to line up against the opposing player; for example, Jordan Williams, the under defensive tackle, is lined up in a 3-technique -- his helmet is supposed to be on the outside shoulder of the guard in front of him. As you can see, this alignment means that both Williams and Vereen have one-on-one matchups against the offensive linemen they face.

For a decent primer on the role that each defensive lineman is supposed to play in the overall scheme, read "The 4-3 Under: Defining the Defense" from our Washington Huskies sister site, UW Dawg Pound. Ben Knibbe occasionally mislabels the strong and weak sides of the formation, but as long as you keep an eye on which side of the formation the tight end is on, you'll never be in doubt.

Previewing the 2015 Defensive Line

The Vols are pretty well set at two positions on the defensive line, with rising sophomore Derek Barnett named to the AP Freshman All-American team at strongside defensive end and rising redshirt junior Danny O'Brien turning in an unheralded but workmanlike effort at nose tackle. Under defensive tackle Jordan Williams graduated and weakside defensive end Corey Vereen had an uninspiring year, so expect serious competition at those two positions, and for spots in the two-deep behind Barnett and O'Brien.

Returning Players

Name Year Height Weight Position Games Played
Games Started TFLs Sacks QBH
Derek Barnett Sophomore 6'3 267 DE 13 10 20.5 10 8
Corey Vereen Junior 6'2 253 DE 22 11 4 1.5 3
LaTroy Lewis RS Junior 6'4 257 DE 19 1 5 1 2
Kendall Vickers RS Sophomore 6'3 262 DE 5 - - - -
Danny O'Brien RS Junior 6'2 286 DT 25 12 4.5 1 -
Owen Williams RS Senior 6'2 288 DT 12 0 2 2 1
Trevarris Saulsberry RS Senior 6'4 296 DT 13 0 - - -
Dimarya Mixon Sophomore 6'3 282 DT 12 0 - - 2
Michael Sawyers Sophomore 6'3 306 DT 4 0 - - -

Players already on campus from the 2015 class

Name Hometown Height Weight Position 247 Position Ranking 247 Composite Stars
Kyle Phillips Nashville, TN 6'4 250 DE 4 0.9831 4
Shy Tuttle Lexington, NC 6'3 315 DT 9 0.9738 4
Andrew Butcher Alpharetta, GA 6'2 245 DE 16 0.9018 4

Players expected to sign Wednesday

Name Hometown Height Weight Position 247 Position Ranking 247 Composite Stars
Kahlil McKenzie Concord, CA 6'3 354 DT 2 0.9968 5
Darrell Taylor Hopewell, VA 6'4 230 DE 14 0.9004 4
Quay Picou Buford, GA 6'3 287 DT 29 0.8706 3

What to Expect

Last year's defensive line had zero collective starts at the beginning of the season and only three players weighed more than 300 pounds -- defensive tackle Charles Mosley, who missed the season with injury, defensive tackle Trevarris Saulsberry, who only played in five games due to injury, and defensive tackle Michael Sawyers, who spent most of 2014 in coach Butch Jones' doghouse. Despite a lack of experience and size, team 118's defensive line posted one of the best statistical seasons in at least five years, with freshman defensive end Derek Barnett putting up double digit sacks and undersized defensive tackles sophomore Danny O'Brien, senior Jordan Williams, and JUCO junior Owen Williams holding their own at the point of attack. The heralded defensive line class of 2014 produced Barnett, but largely fizzled out otherwise: speedy defensive end Joe Henderson was investigated by the NCAA and lost his eligibility, defensive end DeWayne Hendrix became impatient sitting behind Barnett and asked to transfer, and defensive tackles Mosley (injury) and Sawyers (doghouse) were unable to contribute much.

Thus, somewhat unexpectedly, the Vols found themselves hitting the recruiting trail in 2015 in search of impact players and quality depth along the defensive line.

At defensive end, Tennessee landed three players, highlighted by in-state defensive end Kyle Phillips. A four star recruit ranked fourth among strongside defensive ends, Phillips has an explosive first step off of the line of scrimmage and a gigantic frame at 6'4 and 250 pounds. Equally important, Phillips doesn't lack for motivation, with his coach telling Tennessee coaches that Phillips had the highest motor of any player he's ever coached. Phillips, from Hillsboro High School in Nashville, will likely begin his career in orange backing up another Nashville product, Derek Barnett, at strongside defensive end. Having enrolled in January, the only thing that will keep Phillips from making an early impact is the status of his previously injured shoulder -- should he opt to have surgery, he may be held out of the Orange and White game.

Another early enrollee, Andrew Butcher, is expected to compete for playing time at weakside defensive end behind Corey Vereen. Butcher has prototypical size for the position, but won't necessarily blow anyone away with his measurements. Instead, the Georgia product's best trait is his relentless motor and knack for showing up around the ball. Butcher reminds me a bit of former Vol Constantin Ritzmann, who was often overshadowed by more heralded teammates, but nevertheless frequently contributed game-changing plays. On film, Butcher is rarely fooled by fakes or misdirection, and shows good discipline at the point of attack.

Tennessee will sweat a little bit leading up to National Signing Day until Darrell Taylor actually signs his letter of intent. A Virginia native, Taylor has been courted by in-state Virginia Tech the entire time he's been committed to Tennessee. Despite the attention, it's relatively unlikely that Taylor will flip, as he seems entirely content to become a part of the Vols 2015 signing class. At 6'4 and 230 pounds, Taylor is a lightly built prospect with a lightning speed rush. He'll likely start out at weakside defensive end, but he may be able to grow into a strongside defensive end. Depending on his durability, he could run the gamut from immediate contributor to potential redshirt.

At defensive tackle, early enrollee Shy Tuttle is a quiet-natured but mountainous youngster who moves surprisingly well for his size. At more than 300 pounds, Tuttle looks like he's carrying some extra weight, but he may just be built like that -- apparently his coaches at the North Carolina-South Carolina All Star game were shocked by his strength and athleticism. For example, Tuttle scored one of the more entertaining fat guy touchdowns during his high school season when he picked off a pass and returned it to the house. If there's a knock on Tuttle, it's that he sometimes seems to take plays off and give less than full effort. Expect defensive line coach Steve Stripling and the upperclassmen along the defensive line to prod him with a mixture of support and tough love.

The crown jewel of Tennessee's recruiting class is Vol legacy and all-everything defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie. The son of former star Vols' linebacker Reggie McKenzie, Kahlil is a massive, thickly built prospect with tremendous size and agility. There's not much to say about him other than that Stripling must be salivating over the idea of immediately plugging him into the lineup.

Lastly, Quay Picou is a talented prospect who's been flying mostly under the radar. Picou hails from Buford, Georgia, and played on a powerhouse Buford High School team that won this year's state championship game and perennially contends. With good size at 6'3 and 287 pounds, Picou won't be afraid of throwing his head into the competition at defensive tackle.

1. A formation is "strong" or "weak" depending on where the tight end lines up, so the strongside of a formation is the side where the tight end is line up (in order: Guard, Tackle, Tight End), and the weakside is the side where there is no tight end (in order: Guard, Tackle). A formation with two tight ends is balanced or sometimes "flexed".