KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The 2016 season proved Bob Shoop wrong in one key respect, and Tennessee’s second-year defensive coordinator is intent on making last year’s prediction ring true this season.
“Nobody will run the football on the Orange Swarm,” Shoop predicted before last season.
What Shoop didn’t predict — and couldn’t possibly have foreseen — was the uncharacteristically high attrition on the defensive line.
Even coach Butch Jones found himself saying “I’ve never seen anything like it in all of my years,” on more than one occasion when assessing the Vols’ unbelievably bad misfortune in the health department.
Injuries are part of the game, but what happened to the Vols was unprecedented: Only two defensive players, ends Corey Vereen and Derek Barnett — started every game because the injury toll was so high.
The defensive tackle position, in particular, was devastated by attrition.
Tennessee football DL overview
Four of the top five players at defensive tackle were lost for the 2016 season: Danny O’Brien (dismissal), Kahlil Mckenzie (pectoral injury), Shy Tuttle (knee injury), Alexis Johnson (hip injury).
By the end of the season, Tennessee was relying on 255-pound defensive ends to stuff the run — with second-team outside linebackers and a gimpy Darrin Kirkland Jr. behind them, no less.
Some of those injuries have carried over.
Kendal Vickers, the one defensive tackle who stayed healthy enough to play through 2016, will miss spring drills on account of offseason shoulder surgery.
Tuttle remains out with the knee injury, and defensive end Kyle Phillips is also expected to be out spring after shoulder surgery.
Tennessee football DL by the numbers
The Vols ranked 104th in the nation against the run, yielding 5 yards per carry and 218 per game. They are numbers that leave the normally stoic Shoop seeing red.
The gifted defensive coordinator did scheme up enough pressures and run blitzes that Tennessee also ranked 14th in the nation with 7.7 tackles for loss per game, led by Derek Barnett’s 19 TFLs and 13 sacks.
But the Vols will look to cut those 218 yards allowed rushing per game in half, starting with the opener against cut-blocking, option-happy Georgia Tech.
Tennessee football DL moving forward
Brady Hoke has arrived in Knoxville as the new defensive line coach, and he quickly embraced the challenge of getting the Vols healthy and solid up front.
“I like my room of guys,” Hoke said during his media appearance, eschewing the opportunity to use the spring injuries as any sort of excuse.
Hoke was the defensive line coach on Michigan’s 1997 national championship team, and even when head coach of the Wolverines, he still worked with the defenders in the trenches.
Hoke pointed out that Michigan’s national title team had one senior and three redshirt sophomores, so youth won’t be an excuse.
Shoop and Hoke have clicked quickly in the coaches’ room, both proponents of 4-3 schemes that include multiple pressure options and a heavier dose of man-to-man coverage on the back end.
Tennessee football DL standout performer
Jonathan Kongbo, the nation’s No. 1 junior college transfer in 2016, will be plugged in at one end, where he’ll be asked to have a Barnett-like effect.
Kongbo emerged late last season as a defensive tackle, showing he had the power and flexibility to make plays as an interior lineman after injuries dictated he adjust.
Shoop and Hoke will likely use Kongbo to torment opposing offensive lines, perhaps even moving him around from one play to the next to maximize his productivity.
Tennessee football DL projected depth chart
Kahlil McKenzie (6-3, 325, Jr.)
Alexis Johnson (6-4, 295, Sr.)
Kendal Vickers (6-3, 295, RS Sr., out spring, shoulder)
Quay Picou (6-1, 277, Jr.)
Shy Tuttle (6-2, 311, Jr., out spring, knee)
Matt Butler (6-4, 285, Tr. Fr., reports summer) or
Kivon Bennett (6-2, 285, Tr. Fr., reports summer)
Jonathan Kongbo (6-6, 270, RS Jr.)
DeAndre Johnson (6-4, 235, Tr. Fr.)
Darrell Taylor (6-4, 240, Rs. So.)
Kyle Phillips (6-4, 259, Jr., out spring, shoulder)
Competing to play:
DT Paul Bain (6-5, 290, RS Jr.)
DT Joey Cave (6-5, 285, RS Fr.)
DT Eric Crosby (6-1, 325, Tr. Fr. reports summer)
DE Brandon Benedict (6-2, 260, RS Fr.)
DE Austin Smith (6-3, 236, Jr.)
DE Mykelle McDaniel (6-3, 220, So.)
DE Ryan Thaxton (6-4, 220, Tr. Fr. reports summer)
DE Marquez Bembry (6-2, 215, Tr. Fr., reports summer)