The Times Free Press is taking a daily positional look at the 2017 University of Tennessee football team leading up to the first practice Saturday. Today we look at the defensive line:
A group of once-heralded defensive linemen from Tennessee's 2015 signing class returns for its third season in the program with a lot to prove. If Tennessee's defense is to improve from 2016, it needs this group of former four- and five-star prospects to shine as the Volunteers replace defensive ends Derek Barnett, LaTroy Lewis and Corey Vereen. At defensive end, a new trio — Jonathan Kongbo, Kyle Phillips and Darrell Taylor — are almost assured of having major roles after being reserves or playing out of position most of their time with the Vols. Phillips and Taylor were each part of the celebrated 2015 signing class that also included defensive tackles Khalil McKenzie, Quay Picou and Shy Tuttle. McKenzie and Tuttle are returning from injuries that caused them to miss the second half of last season. Their absences and other attrition at the position forced Picou into action last year and allowed Kendal Vickers to emerge as a high-quality defensive tackle. After representing Tennessee at the Southeastern Conference's media days event this month, Vickers is expected to be a leader on the defensive line during his redshirt senior season. Redshirt junior Alexis Johnson will provide further depth at defensive tackle after sitting out last season due to suspension and injury.
There is significantly less hype surrounding this crop of freshman defensive linemen than surrounded the 2015 class. But there is an opportunity for someone — or perhaps multiple players — to emerge and steal some early playing time at defensive end. Deandre Johnson, T.J. Minnifee and Ryan Thaxton are freshman ends. Johnson holds an advantage on the others because he enrolled in January and participated in Tennessee's 14 spring practices. It would not be surprising to see coaches move a player from the crowd at linebacker to defensive end during preseason practices. Kivon Bennett, Matthew Butler and Eric Crosby are freshmen at defensive tackle. Each was given a four-star rating by at least one service that ranks high school prospects. Tennessee has more depth at tackle than end, however, and could consider redshirting one or more of the three.
This defensive line features physically imposing players with raw talent. Kongbo, McKenzie, Phillips, Taylor and Tuttle caused celebration among Tennessee fans when they signed to play for the Vols. If they can stay healthy and play near their collective potential, the defensive line will be in good shape.
A lack of depth at defensive end could haunt first-year defensive line coach Brady Hoke and force true freshmen, or players starting the season in other positions, into action.
Contact David Cobb at firstname.lastname@example.org.