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Tennessee lands at 9th in ESPN’s “Defensive Line U” rankings

A somewhat surprising result.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Texas A&M Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

As part of the annual college football offseason, ESPN throws fuel on the proverbial fire with their “Position U” series. In it, ESPN does a noble attempt at figuring out which colleges deserve their reputations as “NFL factories” so to speak.

The most well known of these discussions is the title of “DBU” or “Defensive Back University” and which college deserves to be known for its defensive backs. A lot of this stuff is meaningless but ultimately a good discussion point.

You can read their criteria for this year, which is somewhat vague but reveals that they did a more objective evaluation than most.

First, we limited our scope to only seasons from 1998 on — the BCS era forward. Second, we wanted to measure both quantity and quality, so rather than just a tally of NFL players from each school, we leveraged Pro Football Reference data to weight our findings based on draft round and average NFL value during their first four seasons. (Beyond four years, the value of the college’s contribution is far outweighed by NFL development.) Lastly, we wanted to include college performance too, so we gave additional points for all-conference and All-America awards.

Tennessee, unsurprisingly, only makes one list. Worst decade in program history, bad player development, you know why the Volunteers aren’t high on many of these lists. Thankfully they do make an appearance...but not where you would expect. As it stands, the Volunteers are ninth in the Defensive Line U rankings.

1. Florida State
2. Alabama
3. Ohio State
4. Clemson
5. Penn State
6. LSU
7. Texas
8. USC
9. Tennessee
10. Florida

The bad news...Tennessee is below hated rival Alabama, and their recent lack of production at the position means they could fall out soon if they’re not careful.

The good news? They’re above Florida, and have a group of linemen in the NFL who are showing a lot of promise, and could help contribute to a better score in the ensuing years.

Tennessee has had 20 defensive linemen drafted since 1998. Only five of those have been since 2010. Oddly enough, three of those five were actually high draft picks, which is probably maintaining that score. Derek Barnett, Darrell Taylor, and Dan Williams were all chosen in the first 50 picks. Meanwhile, Malik Jackson was a late round selection, but he’s arguably had the best career out of anyone in the past decade for Tennessee.

The current NFL players include Barnett, Taylor, Jackson, and Daniel McCullers. That’s not actually a bad group of players to help sustain the ranking in years to come. Quality over quantity, as they say. Though McCullers doesn’t seem to contribute anymore to the score, if the criteria is true.

In terms of draft picks next year, it’s a bit thin. Aubrey Solomon could be picked, and Darel Middleton might end up being a surprise as well. They should at least be able to replace some of the value of a guy like McCullers being phased out.

Heck, if the current staff is successful enough, maybe they can get Tennessee back on more lists than one. We’re allowed to dream, yes?