If you asked me what the weakest part of Tennessee’s 2016 team was, the answer is pretty easy. It was the interior defensive line. By the end of the year, Tennessee was rotating and starting defensive ends for injured defensive tackles. It was an utter disaster. Vanderbilt, Alabama, Kentucky and Missouri ran wild on Tennessee. If the offense didn’t score 40, Tennessee didn’t have chance.
The good news here is that most of Tennessee’s struggles were injury related. Shy Tuttle, Kahlil McKenzie and Danny O’Brien were all lost at some point in the season. By November, there was hardly anything left at all. Jonathan Kongbo, Latroy Lewis and Kyle Phillips were playing out of position simply because somebody had to do it. This lack of depth plagued the Vols so much that they made a change in the strength and conditioning program, hiring Rock Gullickson.
I’m going to chalk last season up as a freak occurrence. Surely there’s no way that can happen again, knock on wood. Tennessee will be anchored in 2017 by Kendal Vickers, who has emerged as a defensive leader this season. Vickers will be one of three players representing Tennessee at SEC Media Days this week in Hoover, Alabama.
Vickers was the one constant on the interior for Tennessee last year, staying healthy and starting in 12 games. There’s no reason to think the 6-3, 295 pounder will do any different this year. Vickers was out for the spring for shoulder surgery, but is expected to be just fine for the season. Behind Vickers is where things get interesting.
Both Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie have been letdowns to this point for Butch Jones and company. Both have flashed some ability when healthy, but both have been derailed by injuries too. I think most of us expected them both to be instant difference makers coming in as five star prospects, but it just hasn’t happened. Danny O’Brien and Kendal Vickers got the majority of the playing time even when both were healthy.
That’s not to say they both can’t blossom — they certainly still can. If they don’t, Tennessee is going to be in big trouble against the run this year, however. If they live up to their billing, the Vols will have a really nice three man rotation up front. Maybe new defensive line coach Brady Hoke can maximize that talent.
After those three, Tennessee will likely rely on Alexis Johnson — who missed all but one game last year due to a hip issue. Quay Picou played in six games as a sophomore in a reserve role. He should remain in that role this season. Paul Bain also appeared in six games and may compete for time this season.
Matthew Butler, Eric Cosby and Kivon Bennett are all three to four star prospects (depending on where you look) in their first year. It’s going to be interesting to watch these three and see if any can push for some immediate playing time. The numbers aren’t in their favor, but we saw Tennessee dip way down into the well last year, so you never know. It’s nice to know that the depth is there though.
This group will get a big test right off the bat with Georgia Tech’s option attack. As Tennessee tries to find their way with a new group on offense, the defense is going to have to step up and relieve some pressure. It all starts with this group right here.