Everyone wants to know about Tennessee’s highly regarded defensive linemen and how they’ve been progressing this spring. Well, defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie is doing quite well. That’s pretty much the only “big-time” player participating in spring practice. The rest have been sidelined with various injuries suffered before spring practice even began. That pretty much wraps up the superstars.
However, it won’t just be superstars who help the Vols this fall. A number of Tennessee D- linemen are benefitting from increased practice snaps, while the bigger names are on the mend. Defensive tackle Danny O’Brien and defensive end LaTroy Lewis are two such linemen garnering praise from their coaches.
Neither came with McKenzie-like accolades in recruiting, but both have contributed and, like McKenzie, both are gobbling up practice reps. Often times, the Vols have trotted onto the practice field with just seven scholarship defensive linemen. Lewis has always been there.
“I think LaTroy has been the warrior of our group this spring,” Tennessee defensive line coach Steve Stripling said of the Akron, Ohio native. “He’s taken almost every rep.”
Lewis has been a consistent go-to player when needed throughout his career. The senior has started six games at Tennessee and played in 36.
“It’s great for the guys that are getting reps for their mental toughness … that they are getting taxed, that they are getting ground up a little bit,” Stripling said.
Getting “ground up” might not sound so great. However, for O’Brien, it’s a chance to continue to improve his game in hopes of fending off McKenzie and Shy Tuttle, who is still rehabbing an ankle injury from last season. O’Brien started 12 games as a sophomore in 2014 but only one game last season after being suspended in September. There’s plenty of work to go around this season, and O’Brien has made the most of it.
“It’s challenging from a logistics perspective but it’s a great opportunity for those guys,” Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. “That’s what we keep talking about. You can see how much Danny O’Brien has improved. You could make a strong argument that he’s one of the more improved players on the unit. He’s provided a tremendous amount of leadership to the guys up front.”
This isn’t the first time the Vols have been through an injury-riddled spring on the defensive line — such was the case last season as well. With four spring practices remaining, Tennessee just hopes to make it through the homestretch healthy.
“Last spring was tough,” Stripling said, “but this one’s almost a little bit more to be honest with you.”