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2022 Tennessee Defensive Preview: The Front

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel via Imagn Content Services, LLC

There’s been plenty of talk about the Tennessee offense as we creep closer to the 2022 season, and rightfully so. Hendon Hooker returning to guide Josh Heupel’s offense in year two could potentially be special, but questions on the other side of the ball remain.

Tim Banks overachieved in year one, getting just about everything out of a unit that was projected to have a rough season. They held their own pretty much all season, outside of a handful of rough moments due to a lack of depth or just a pure talent mismatch.

What does year two look like? Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll dive into that question. Today we start with Rodney Garner’s defensive line.

Replacing Matthew Butler

You’ve got to start with the obvious question, can anyone fill the shoes of Matthew Butler? Butler moved on to the NFL this offseason after a rock solid career in Knoxville, bringing it every single snap. He wasn’t exactly elite on the field, but his leadership and production will certainly leave a void in the middle of this front.

Key depth pieces Ja’Quain Blakely, Caleb Tremblay and Aubrey Solomon have also moved on.

A number of names are left on the depth chart, but quite honestly to this point, none really stand out from the pack. LaTrell Bumphus and Kurott Garland return for one more season, while Elijah Simmons, Omari Thomas and Da’Jon Terry will be expected to take big steps forward.

Both Simmons and Bumphus dealt with injuries that forced several missed games during the 2021 season. Tennessee will need both ready to roll this fall.

Statistically, Omari Thomas is the most accomplished defensive tackle returning to the lineup. Appearing in 12 games last season, Thomas was credited with 18 tackles, five tackles for loss and one sack. He improved as the season went, cracking the starting lineup for the final four games of 2021.

Da’Jon Terry put up similar numbers, coming over from Kansas last season. The 6-4, 321 pound tackle appeared in ten games, putting up 19 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack. Garland appeared in eight games, while Simmons was limited to just five and Bumphus only saw action in three.

Dominic Bailey and Amari McNeil are also in this picture now following the roster turnover.

In the class of 2022, Tennessee made a big splash during the early signing period to land four-star defensive tackle Tyre West. The Vols also signed Jordan Phillips, who actually went through bowl practices with the team. Both went through spring practices. Already with their feet wet, it will be interesting to see where they land in the pecking order this fall. Both are intriguing wildcards.

Tyler Baron and Byron Young — it’s your time

On the edge, Tennessee has two proven bodies, and both are fully capable of taking a big step forward. Byron Young has the highest upside as a pure pass rusher, proving that in spurts last season. He impacted the Alabama game, totaling three quarterback hurries and his first career solo sack. It took him a few games to find his footing, but the JUCO product lived up to the hype in the second half of 2021. Now with another year in the program, Young may be ready to become a true impact player in the SEC.

Young put up 5.5 sacks last season for Tennessee — can he push towards double digits this year? The Volunteer need him to do just that, and it does seem like a realistic step for him to take.

On the other side you’ve got Tyler Baron, who is more of a power player than Young. The 6-5, 260 pound defensive end put up four sacks in his sophomore season, adding seven tackles for loss. He entered the transfer portal curiously after the season, but quickly chose to stay put. He’s now one of the most important players on Tim Banks’ defense.

Beyond those two sits the veteran Roman Harrison, who has provided depth for Tennessee over the last couple of seasons. From there, the Vols get really, really young. Thankfully, those young prospects are highly-ranked incoming talent.

Four-star edge rushers Joshua Josephs and James Pearce could be leaned on early in the pass rushing rotation with limited depth on the roster. Pearce, a five-star prospect according to On3, was the 11th ranked player in the entire class. He was the 202nd ranked player, per 247Sports. Regardless, the raw talent is certainly there, and it’s going to be interesting to see how quickly he’s worked in once fall camp begins. Josephs was the 313th ranked player in the cycle, per 247Sports. The 6-3, 215 pounder is a natural fit as a DE/LB/Edge hybrid type, and could also have a pretty short path to playing time.

Dominic Bailey and Bryson Eason are a couple of other names to keep in mind here as the defensive staff could shift some things around to best fit their needs.

Summary

Tennessee isn’t striking much fear into the rest of the SEC with their defensive front, but Rodney Garner and Tim Banks were able to surprise last season. You’d be foolish to sleep on Garner, who just keeps churning out players to NFL defensive lines. Another offseason with this crop of talent and there’s no telling who could emerge.

The Vols are going to bank on Baron, Young, Thomas, Terry and Simmons taking steps forward, hoping to replace the production of Matthew Butler in the teeth of this unit. The staff will need a couple of those names to turn into true difference makers — my money is probably going on Byron Young and Omari Thomas.