When Jeremy Pruitt arrived in Knoxville to take over the Tennessee football program, there were several things that he needed to change on his roster to run his scheme how he wanted. Maybe the most important was defensive line, which was much smaller than Pruitt needed. Pruitt made due with what he had in year one, while adding size and depth to get ready for year two.
A season later, this group looks quite a bit different. Tennessee lost Kyle Phillips, Alexis Johnson and Shy Tuttle from last year’s group, meaning that there will be plenty of snaps available to some new faces in 2019.
Let’s take a look at where the defensive line will go from here.
At least one sure thing: Emmit Gooden
By the end of the year, Emmit Gooden might have been Tennessee’s best defensive tackle. The JUCO transfer came on as the season went, adding beef up front for Jeremy Pruitt’s 3-4 front. Now a senior, Gooden will man the strong-side defensive end spot on a full-time basis. He was able to flash quite a bit in the final few games for Tennessee in 2018, finishing with 33 total tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and one sack.
The Aubrey Solomon situation
The junior tackle somehow still hasn’t heard from the NCAA about his status this season. Solomon, a five-star defensive tackle who transferred in from Michigan, has two years of eligibility left. After seeing three defensive lineman graduate last season, Tennessee could obviously use Solomon this season.
Solomon appeared in just two games for the Wolverines last season, finishing with just three tackles before suffering an injury. For that reason, there’s been plenty of optimism that the 6-5, 299 pound Solomon will be eligible this year.
As a freshman, Solomon played in eight games totaling 16 tackles. As a recruit, he was the 23rd ranked prospect in the class of 2017. Tennessee is hoping he realizes that potential as early as this fall, playing alongside of Emmit Gooden.
Who will emerge from a crowded pack?
From here, there doesn’t seem to be too much definition on the depth chart as we head into fall camp. Tennessee has a bunch of names with good size behind those top two and the coaching staff will let this battle play out in camp starting this week.
Savion Williams may be the most intriguing out of the gate. He was the top JUCO defensive tackle in the 2019 class and is listed at 6-4, 304 pounds, offering a little more beef than the top two options. Where he slots in against second year players like Greg Emerson, John Mincey and Kingston Harris will be interesting to start the fall.
Emerson has added 30 pounds since arriving in Knoxville, perhaps meaning he’ll be ready to contribute this fall after redshirting in his first year. Now at 6-3, 309 pounds, the former top 150 recruit could find himself with a large role in the defense if Solomon is ruled ineligible.
John Mincey is a lighter option, which figures to slot into weakside defense end equation. Mincey appeared in five games for Tennessee in 2018, registering a sack and five tackles.
Kingston Harris is up to 306 pounds after signing with Tennessee at 285. He played in two games in 2018 before going on the shelf to redshirt. The former three-star recruit should be a rotational piece for the Vols in 2019.
Another JUCO signee, Darel Middelton offers an immediate size upgrade for Tennessee. The 6-7, 311 pound defensive end was the 4th ranked JUCO defensive tackle prospect in the class of 2019, coming two Knoxville with two years of eligibility left.
Finally, freshman Elijah Simmons figures to be a redshirt candidate, despite him looking every bit of the part in year one. At 6-1, 335 pounds, Simmons is a future nose tackle solution for Tennessee.
How all of these pieces fit together remains to be seen, but Tennessee has decent depth at the position and much better size heading into year two under Jeremy Pruitt.