published Sunday, February 9th, 2014

Tennessee Vols sold 'great opportunity' to eight defensive line signees

KNOXVILLE — Steve Stripling readily admitted he was as nervous as any other assistant coach on Tennessee's football staff during the final couple of weeks before national signing day.

After all, when Montgomery Bell Academy's Jashon Robertson flipped his verbal commitment to the Volunteers from Vanderbilt, where he had initially pledged nearly two years ago, he became the eighth potential defensive lineman in Tennessee's 2014 recruiting class.

And some other programs made sure the Vols' commitments knew that.

"Totally sweating, on really all of them," the defensive line coach said Wednesday when the ink had dried on signing day. "I get it. The message was, 'Tennessee's taking all these D-linemen.' I get it, but once they understood [it], the picture was there's great opportunity.

"Nobody has a better opportunity than we do, when you talk about the six young men that did the majority of playing [last season] graduated. There's great opportunity here, so there's two ways to look at it, and they were obviously listening to a different way until they understood our way."

While Tennessee did lose commitment Cory Thomas to Mississippi State on signing day, the Vols did land Michael Sawyers, the four-star defensive tackle from four-time defending state champion Ensworth in Nashville who came back on the market when Vanderbilt coach James Franklin left for Penn State.

It probably was Dewayne Hendrix, from the St. Louis area, and Brentwood Academy's Derek Barnett who caused Stripling to lose the most sleep. Missouri convinced Hendrix, a four-star player, to take a mid-January official visit to its campus, while Barnett oddly posted on Twitter eight days before signing day that he was doing no more interviews.

Eight players in one recruiting class at any position, even one at which most SEC programs like to rotate a handful of players, is a big number, but Tennessee's case on the defensive line is a little bit different.

The Vols are losing six seniors who played most of the snaps last season, and while Stripling said he's seen his returning players ramp up their offseason work with those wide-open positions in mind, most recruits can't help but pay attention to the depth charts and commitment lists.

"I'll be honest, any young man just keeps seeing the D-linemen adding up, and I think it affects them," said Stripling, a coaching veteran of more than 30 years. "They needed to see the whole picture, which was our message to them.

"In my defensive room right now, there's only about 10 guys, versus some schools in the SEC [where] there's 17 and 18 D-linemen in that room. Even though we're taking a higher number, our actual number's lower. I guess you just had to present the case to them."

Ends Corey Vereen and Jordan Williams have the most experience of Tennessee's returning defensive linemen, and the Vols were dealt a blow when Trevarris Saulsberry, the rising fourth-year junior who really came on early last season, had to have offseason knee and shoulder surgeries.

Danny O'Brien and Greg Clark were in the rotation at defensive tackle last season, and the Vols are eager to see what the four players they signed in 2013 -- tackle Jason Carr and ends Kendal Vickers, Jaylen Miller and Malik Brown -- can do with a year in the program under their belts.

"We know that there's a shortage of big bodies in our football program right now, so that was a point of emphasis," head coach Butch Jones said. "To be able to attract the type of individuals that we were able to is very, very pleasing. Now it's up to us to develop them. That was a great need in our football program. We're still not where we need to be.

"Even though it's a large number [in this class], we're not going to improve and fix all our deficiencies in one recruiting class."

These eight additions are an excellent start, though.

Junior college transfer Owen Williams and Dimarya Mixon, who took the past fall off after signing with Nebraska and failing to qualify academically in 2013, already are on campus.

Hendrix and Barnett were rated as consensus four-star prospects, while Sawyers and Cleveland-area end Joe Henderson both were rated four-star players by 247Sports and one other recruiting service. Robertson, a state champion wrestler, and Charles Mosley, the 6-foot-5, 362-pounder from Brighton in West Tennessee, could play either offensive or defensive line.

Though this eight-player class was crucial for Tennessee to replenish and upgrade at the position, it's probably more important for the Vols' 2014 season that the linemen on campus take a leap in their developments.

"That's really big, to shore up the line of scrimmage, especially in this conference," defensive coordinator John Jancek said. "I understand that these guys aren't going to come in and have an immediate impact in the Southeastern Conference. They're 18-year-old freshmen in college competing against a fourth- or fifth-year senior who's 23 or 22 years old.

"They're going to have some work to do, but again, everything is about longevity. Everything is about building for the future, and I think this class gives us the opportunity to develop our defensive line with some bigger-bodied kids. I think they'll be more active than we've had in the past, and even though we're going to take some lumps early, we're building for the future."

The future isn't that far off for Stripling, though.

"I told them all that, 'Hey, the door's wide open,'" he said. "I know we're taking eight, but there's great opportunity there. That's what I kept selling them, and it's true -- there is great opportunity.

"Obviously Mixon and Williams are here, and that's an advantage for them, and we're excited to have them here. I want them all to come in with the attitude that 'I'm ready to play.'"

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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