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10 Questions for 2016 #6: How Good Can the Defensive Line Be?

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Alabama John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Of all the questions in our countdown, this one is the most exciting.

Consider this scenario:

Shy Tuttle gets healthy. His leg injury last year against Georgia was gruesome, but he’s at least out there in pads even if very limited. Meanwhile a slimmed down Kahlil McKenzie approaches his massive potential, as we discussed earlier in our countdown.

You know what you’re going to get from Derek Barnett. Ten sacks in his freshman season, ten sacks in his sophomore season. In 2014 he and Curt Maggitt combined to create Tennessee’s most fearsome pass rush of the post-Fulmer era. Last year Barnett struggled early when Maggitt was lost for the season against Oklahoma, just one sack in the first five games as opposing offensive lines could key on him exclusively. But Tennessee’s run in the second half of the year coincided with Barnett’s return to form, scoring nine sacks in the final eight games.

He wasn’t alone in his rise: after the Vols had only nine sacks in their first six games, Tennessee exploded for five sacks against Alabama and never looked back. They closed the year with a pair of four sack performances against Vanderbilt and Northwestern. What helped make Barnett better was an increase in pressure from the other side of the line: Corey Vereen, LaTroy Lewis, and Chris Weatherd combined for 5.5 sacks in Tennessee’s last seven games.

Of course, some of the rise down the stretch was also due to the level of competition. Tennessee’s performance in Tuscaloosa was certainly noteworthy, but after that the Vols didn’t face a bowl team in the regular season and then faced one with a non-existent passing game in Tampa. We’ll be much more eager to see if the Vols can duplicate that kind of success in the middle of October this fall.

To do that, Tennessee will need to be good enough on the other side of the line to prevent teams from doubling down on Barnett. Vereen and Lewis return for their senior seasons and may be penciled in as co-starters early in camp. Injuries cost Kyle Phillips half of his freshman year, but he’s back and healthy for round two.

And then there’s Kongbo.

Kongbo was the nation’s top-ranked junior college player last year. Like Kahlil McKenzie, if he even approaches his potential this fall? With Barnett lining up opposite him?

Last year Alabama was third nationally in sacks per game, Clemson fourth, and Oklahoma ninth. The title was split between Arizona State and Penn State at 3.54 sacks per game, and the Nittany Lions’ defensive architect now wears orange and white. The SEC East has been won by the team with the most sacks per game in six of the last seven years. In this league and more and more in college football in general, championship teams get to the quarterback. When you add in Jalen Reeves-Maybin (six sacks last year) and whatever else Bob Shoop can draw up with this defense?

Tennessee’s 35 sacks in 2014, fueled by the Maggitt/Barnett combo, were the most the Vols had recorded since getting a school record 50 in 2000, when John Henderson won the Outland Trophy. Tennessee also had 40+ sack seasons in 1992, 1995, 1997, and 1999. The bar is high at this university: much of Tennessee’s greatness in the decade of dominance was due to a tremendous ability to get pressure on the quarterback.

Can the 2016 group take their place among such an elite class? There are certainly if’s involved, but there are also a world of options and a ceiling the heights of which we haven’t seen in 15 years. In previous seasons we would have needed a player like Kongbo or even Kyle Phillips to come in and be the number one answer immediately. Now they get a chance to be closer to the final piece of what could be a very dangerous puzzle.

#10: Will any freshmen make an immediate impact?

#9: Kahlil McKenzie, Year Two

#8: Malik Foreman & Rashaan Gaulden Step Into the Spotlight

#7: Who’s next at linebacker?