With Tennessee less than a week from starting spring practice, Times Free Press staff writer Patrick Brown takes a position-by-position look at the Vols heading into Butch Jones' second spring as the Vols' coach.
• Friday: Quarterbacks
• Saturday: Running backs
• Sunday: Receivers and tight ends
• Monday: Offensive line
• Today: Defensive line/linebackers
• Wednesday: Secondary
• Thursday: Five questions
KNOXVILLE - When A.J. Johnson elected to return to Tennessee for his senior season instead of enter the NFL draft, it meant not only that the Volunteers were getting back a two-time All-SEC linebacker but also that they didn't have to replace every starter from their front seven.
Heading into Butch Jones's second season as coach, the Vols must replace their top five 2013 defensive linemen in production and plays. That means a handful of unproven players will have spring practice to distinguish themselves from the pack before as many as six freshman linemen arrive for the summer.
"I think it starts in the offensive and defensive lines," Jones said last week, highlighting his biggest concerns heading into his second spring. "We lose a lot to graduation, so we're going to be forced to play a lot of young players, and a lot of the players that will be playing next year aren't even here yet and haven't even enrolled.
"It's really being able to run the ball effectively, being able to stop the run, being able to generate a pass rush [and] really trying to evaluate what players we can win with come the fall."
Tennessee's defensive front will get a boost from the return of Curt Maggitt, a two-year starter who missed last season recovering from a knee injury. He and Johnson will be valuable to the Vols both on the field and in leadership roles.
Who's back: A.J. Johnson (Tennessee's top tackler and All-SEC selection in 2012 and 2013), Curt Maggitt (missed 2013 season recovering from knee surgery), Jalen Reeves-Maybin (team-leading 11 special-teams tackles in 2013), Justin King (former tight end redshirted last season) and Kenny Bynum (four games in 2013 after redshirting) at linebacker; Corey Vereen (13 tackles and one sack in 2013), Jordan Williams (4.5 sacks in three seasons), LaTroy Lewis (four tackles in six games in 2013), Jaylen Miller (three games in 2013), Kendal Vickers (redshirted in 2013) and Malik Brown (redshirted and had wrist surgery) at defensive end; Trevarris Saulsberry (missed eight games with a knee injury), Danny O'Brien (12 tackles, three for loss and one sack in 12 games), Greg Clark (seven tackles in 10 games), Jason Carr (three games) and Allan Carson (five games in three seasons).
Who's gone: Tennessee lost six seniors off its defensive line: ends Jacques Smith, Marlon Walls and Corey Miller and tackles Daniel McCullers, Daniel Hood and Maurice Couch. That group combined for 141 tackles, 25 tackles for loss and 13 sacks last season. At linebacker, Dontavis Sapp, the Vols' third-leading tackler in 2013, Brent Brewer, Greg King, Raiques Crump and John Propst were seniors, and Christian Harris transferred to Division II Grand Valley State. Brewer started four games, Propst and King played on special teams and got spot duty on defense, and Crump and Harris were special-teamers.
Who's new: Junior college defensive lineman Owen Williams and Dimarya Mixon, who didn't play football last season after failing to qualify academically in 2013, when he signed with Nebraska, enrolled in January. German-born linebacker Jakob Johnson, a 6-foot-4, 230-pounder who's impressed in his lone season of football, also began his career two months ago.
Coming soon: The calvary will come riding into Knoxville for the summer, when six defensive linemen and three linebackers are scheduled to arrive. Among the linemen are four-star recruits Dewayne Hendrix, Joe Henderson, Derek Barnett and Michael Sawyers and two-way linemen Charles Mosley and Jashon Robertson. Four-star linebackers Dillon Bates, Gavin Bryant and JuCo transfer Chris Weatherd will join them. Athlete Elliott Berry also could start his career at linebacker.
IN THE MIX
Aside from Vereen, who impressed the coaching staff with his work ethic, approach and promise as a freshman last year, everything on Tennessee's defensive line is up for grabs. The five seniors -- Couch was suspended for the season following the second game -- who played most of the snaps have moved on, leaving a wealth of opportunities for the younger players still in the program. Vereen and Williams have played the most snaps at defensive end, while O'Brien and Clark were the second pair at tackle last season. Saulsberry made an early-season move that essentially landed him the third tackle position after Couch's suspension, but his season was derailed by a knee injury suffered at Oregon. At linebacker, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, a former safety who memorably blocked a punt against Georgia, is a player the coaches really like and would be the third linebacker alongside veterans A.J. Johnson and Maggitt. Depth there likely won't arrive until the summer.
ONE TO WATCH
Though improved from the debacle of 2012, Tennessee's defense last season still missed Maggitt, who sat out all of 2013 after a slower-than-hoped recovery from a torn ACL suffered against Missouri 16 months ago. The former four-star recruit from Florida has proven to be one of the Vols' few defensive playmakers when he's been healthy, but Maggitt has had an injury-plagued career to this point, though there doesn't appear to be any concerns now about his health. Tennessee's defensive staff will welcome having at their disposal a versatile player who can play inside or outside at linebacker or slide down and provide the edge pass-rushing presence that the program has lacked in recent seasons. Having Maggitt back on the field carries an intangible importance, too. Coach Butch Jones praised Maggitt for his vocal presence and leadership on the sideline and scout team last season and called him the "heart and soul" of the team earlier this offseason.
Who, if anybody, makes a move on the defensive line? With so many new players arriving in the summer, spring practice will be a very important time for the returning linemen. Carr, Miller, Brown and Vickers -- the four linemen the Vols signed in 2013 -- have had a year in the program to add weight and learn under line coach Steve Stripling and the veterans who were there last season. Vickers has made some noise this offseason, while Carr and Miller got limited experience early on last season. In Williams and Mixon, Tennessee added two players who are a little bit older, and the Vols certainly would like to see Williams show he can be reliable this spring. For the more experienced returning players such as Williams, O'Brien and Saulsberry, who's coming off a couple of offseason surgeries, it's about stepping up and taking the next developmental step. The opportunities for all these players are there, and it's now about who takes them.
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.