We all know that Tennessee is tasked with replacing a ton of talent and leadership this season. It’s the main reason why Tennessee has been projected to finish 3rd in the SEC East by just about every analyst. But Butch Jones has no bigger task than replacing that of Derek Barnett, Tennessee’s all time leader in sacks.
Barnett was the one constant for Tennessee defensively last season, coming through time and time again when the Volunteers needed him the most. Corey Vereen has also moved on, leaving two pretty big voids along the Tennessee front. It’s one of the biggest question marks we have for the Vols entering 2017. Who is going to step up as a pass rusher?
One thing that should comfort Tennessee fans is that the cupboard is hardly bare. Butch Jones has done a nice job of accumulating pass rushing talent over the past few seasons.
The name that everyone will tell you is Jonathan Kongbo. He will step into Derek Barnett’s vacated position and hope to steady the ship as a pass rusher. There’s just one problem — we didn’t really see much out of Kongbo last year. He’s still an unknown, despite his five star billing. We all know he played some defensive tackle last season due to depth issues, but he’ll get his shot back on the outside as a full time player in 2017.
Opposite of Kongbo, Kyle Phillips and Darrell Taylor are next in line to start on the other side. Both played in reserve roles last season, but neither player registered a sack. Phillips is the more experienced player, but has been dealing shoulder injury. Butch Jones did say that Phillips should be ready for camp, however.
Taylor, Kongbo and Phillips will likely be your top three pass rushers, but don’t rule out an immediate contribution from Deandre Johnson, who is a true freshman that enrolled in January. Johnson already looks the part, checking in at 6-4, 258 pounds.
Beyond that top four, it gets thin quick. A handful of freshman defensive ends — Matthew Butler, Ryan Thaxton, Brandon Benedict and TJ Minnifee round out the depth chart. These guys shouldn’t see much action this season.
The takeaway here is similar to the roster as a whole — just a bunch of unproven talent. It looks good on paper, but Brady Hoke has his work cut out for him to try and maximize these guys. Tennessee has a similar issue on the interior too. The defensive front is my main area of concern headed into the season. Without a couple of guys making a couple of big leaps forward, the Vols could struggle at the line of scrimmage.