published Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

UT Vols defensive line still needs lot of work

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    End Jordan Williams (54) and tackle Danny O'Brien (95) are two of Tennessee's three defensive linemen with significant playing experience who are going through spring practice.
    Photo by C. B. Schmelter /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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    Defensive coordinator John Jancek, right, listens to football coach Butch Jones' spring practice plans during a news conference at the University of Tennessee.
    Photo by The Knoxville News Sentinel /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — John Jancek acknowledged the obvious.

Replacing all four starters and the top five players from a defensive line in the Southeastern Conference is far from an ideal situation, and Tennessee's defensive coordinator knows it.

And the process of addressing the situation is in its earliest stages this spring.

"Big concern. Yeah, it's a big concern," Jancek said last week. "We're trying to put the pieces of the puzzle in place at that position, taking a look at a lot of different guys, trying to get a lot of guys reps, rotating them in to see who can step up and compete for a starting position.

"I wish we had a greater sense of urgency than what we do overall as a defense," he added. "Right now there's some new things in, there's a lot of new faces, so they're kind of still feeling their way around.

"We've got to get through this initial phase of introductory football 101 of this is how we're playing defense so that we can move forward and really work on our style of play and get better at it."

In defensive ends Jordan Williams and Corey Vereen and defensive tackle Danny O'Brien, the Volunteers have three players who have played meaningful snaps in their careers, and one other, tackle Trevarris Saulsberry, is missing spring practice with an injury.

The other commodities are either new or unproven, and Tennessee's coaches are hoping to see more from those players when the Vols return to practice after taking more than a week off for the university's spring break.

"The improvement of [those] three, that's been markedly better than I thought," defensive line coach Steve Stripling said of Vereen, Williams and O'Brien. "I think they've really improved from the fall. I'm excited about them.

"I think of the some of the younger players that were scout-team players -- that was their role last year -- I think they're still slow to come along, so we're working at it."

Allan Carson, a fourth-year tackle, and LaTroy Lewis, a third-year end who Jancek said has been doing "some good things" early this spring, have played in nine games combined in their careers, but the Vols are hoping to see more from four players they signed in 2013.

Tackle Jason Carr and end Jaylen Miller both played in three games early last season before falling out of the rotation, and ends Kendal Vickers and Malik Brown redshirted.

Carr was a four-star recruit out of Memphis, Vickers was a longtime South Carolina commitment, Brown flipped to Tennessee from Syracuse and Miller's scholarship offer list included LSU and Florida and six ACC schools.

"They're trying, but there's not that level of intensity that we need from those guys," Jancek said. "They're young players. They're still in really their first year, but they've got to pick it up.

"I think there's a lot of it to do with their youth and them continuing to try and grow and get better learning football -- not just the defense, but now learning offensive sets and splits and things like that. They've got to pick it up."

Tennessee added two 2014 defensive line recruits in January, and six freshmen will arrive in the summer. In junior college transfer Owen Williams and Dimarya Mixon, who sat out 2013 after he didn't qualify academically at Nebraska, the Vols have a couple of options that won't be true freshmen.

The 6-foot-2, 285-pound Williams, a second-team junior college All-American last season, has gotten most of the first-team repetitions at tackle alongside O'Brien, and he's already established himself as one of the strongest players on the team. He had a couple of stops and broke up a pass at the line in Tennessee's scrimmage last Friday.

"He's been impressive in that he's shown that he has strength," Stripling said. "He's shown that he has quickness. He's a tremendous young man [with] a great attitude. He's also shown that he doesn't know what it takes at this level, so again, that's part of developing the identity of the defense. But I'm really pleased and excited about Owen Williams."

Mixon, at 6-3 and 263 pounds, has worked both inside at tackle and outside at end, and though he's a year older than the cavalry coming in the summer, he's still shaking off some rust after not playing last season.

"Right now it's pretty even as far as the front line goes," Jancek said.

"We've got Owen Williams ... and he's shown that he can hold the point in there and do some things physically. We've got Dimarya Mixon in there. He's a true freshman, but he's got good size. It's a lot for those guys right now. They're just kind of finding their way around, but we've just got to keep getting better each and every day."

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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