SEC Country is breaking down each Tennessee position group as the Vols prepare for spring football practice.
Sunday’s breakdown features Tennessee’s 2016 defensive line.
Notable departures: Linebacker/defensive end Curt Maggitt
Major players: Kahlil McKenzie (DT), Shy Tuttle (DT), and Derek Barnett (DE), Corey Vereen (DE)
Analysis: Tennessee’s first-team defensive line should be one of the most formidable the Vols have had in several seasons. That is if Vereen can be more consistent and McKenzie takes the kind of step one would expect from a commendable freshman season… He wasn’t great but continued to improve all season.
Vereen is still hard to get a handle on. He’s shown flashes of greatness throughout his Tennessee career, but has struggled to display consistency. With the NFL in sight, this a contract year for Vereen. The attention paid to Barnett, who is one of the league’s top pass rushers, should only help Vereen.
Tuttle appeared on the verge of superstardom before a controversial block in the Georgia game resulted in an ankle injury that knocked him out for the remainder of the season. As long as he’s healthy, Tuttle can be one of the better defensive tackles in the nation.
Depth will be an issue for the Vols, especially if junior college transfer Alexis Johnson isn’t available due to his ongoing legal issues — he’s been suspended from all team activities since he was arrested for aggravated assault on Feb 17. He could certainly use spring practice to adjust to the speed of the SEC. Nevertheless, the Vols need him this fall. The Vols could look to senior defensive tackle Danny O’Brien for some depth, as well as junior Dimarya Mixon and senior LaTroy Lewis at defensive end. The Vols have to be excited with Kyle Phillips, who has shown great ability. However, he and Barnett will be very limited this spring because of injuries. Kendall Vickers, Darrell Taylor and Quay Picou need to have a strong spring to provide more depth.
Key question: Can the reserves step up?
Bottom line: Clearly, the Vols have been in much worse shape on the defensive line in recent years. However, an injury or two and Tennessee could be in trouble. Coach Butch Jones and his defensive staff need to find at least four linemen that they can count on to play approximately 20 snaps per game. Johnson would fit the bill if he can clear up his legal issues.
Monday morning preview: Receivers/Tight ends
Saturday: Offensive Line