Of all the position groups on Tennessee’s roster, the defensive line is the most loaded with blue-chip talent.
The Vols’ 2015 recruiting class ranked No. 6 overall according to the 247Sports rankings largely on the strength of its defensive line recruits — 5-star defensive tackle Reginald McKenzie Jr., 4-star defensive tackle Shy Tuttle and 4-star defensive end Kyle Phillips. Four-star defensive end Jonathan Kongbo was one of the Vols’ top recruits in the 2016 class.
But through Tennessee’s first two games this season, none of those players have a sack and the Vols have just one as a team. Those players have a combined 2 tackles for loss.
Coach Butch Jones doesn’t view that as any reason for concern, however, because the offensive schemes of Georgia Tech and Indiana State make it difficult for defensive linemen to make major impacts, especially with a pass rush.
“The first two games, the type of offensive scheme that we went against, it really nullified and kinda neutralized our defensive front,” Jones said on VolCalls on Wednesday night. “They only threw three dropback passes last Saturday, and obviously, the triple option with Georgia Tech.”
But Saturday’s game at Florida begins SEC play, which means a lot more spread offense and passing. They each bring their own set of challenges, but they at least allow a defensive line to rush the passer and try to create havoc.
The Gators allowed Michigan those opportunities in their Week 1 loss to the Wolverines. They threw 26 passes and were sacked 6 times.
“Everything in this conference is about impacting the quarterback,” Jones said. “You can impact the quarterback in a number of ways. It’s not just a sack. It’s getting them to flush the pocket. It’s getting him to step up in the pocket. It’s disrupting his rhythm and timing. It’s tipped footballs. Then, it’s hits on the quarterback after he’s thrown the ball as well.”
The likelihood of heat and humidity, as well as rain, on Saturday in Gainesville could test the depth of the line, but Jones said he was pleased enough in what he saw from Phillips and others last Saturday to feel good about where the group stands. He’s also pleased to have Tuttle back in the lineup after he missed the end of last season with a major right knee injury and sat out the Georgia Tech game to avoid the cut blocks that would go right after the recovering joint.
“The emergence of Kyle Phillips has really helped us,” Jones said. “We feel very, very confident, obviously in Jonathan Kongbo and Darrell Taylor and now Kyle Phillips, the way he’s playing. The interior is going to be the same way, and easing Shy Tuttle back in. I’ll tell you what, it was great to see No. 2 back on the field. He still needs to get into football condition and in some extensive drives. But it was just great, and I think it’s a display of resilience and resolve that this kid has shown.”
Phillips also said the D-line is ready to see an offense that will at least present the opportunity to rush the passer.
“It’s been kind of frustrating as a defensive line,” Phillips said. “But this week we’re ready to dominate up front.”