KNOXVILLE — After Kyle Phillips dealt with injuries and a temporary position change in his first two college football seasons, 2017 was shaping up as a coming-out party for the Tennessee defensive end.
So far, it has been just that.
Phillips, a junior from Nashville with Chattanooga ties through his mother — Tennessee State's athletic director — recorded just two tackles against Indiana State on Saturday but graded out as the best defensive lineman in the game, according to coach Butch Jones.
"We thought he played one of his best football games since he's been here," Jones said. "When we graded the defensive line, we thought he played the best in that unit. He was explosive; he used his hands well; he ran to the football.
"He's turned into a great leader for us."
The coaching staff moved Phillips from defensive end to defensive tackle last season because of injuries at the inside position. But now, back at end, he is making an impact in and providing depth as the first end to rotate in behind starters Darrell Taylor and Jonathan Kongbo.
"Kyle is always a guy who is going to stay in the film room, and he's one of the smartest guys we have, so for him to put it out on the field shows that he's been prepping himself for this moment. ... I can't wait to see him from here on out," defensive tackle Kendal Vickers said.
Even with Phillips' performance so far, the Vols need more defensive ends to step out in order to build depth behind Kongbo and Taylor. Freshmen Deandre Johnson and Matthew Butler both played some at end in Saturday's win over Indiana State and will be needed more as the season progresses.
"Right now, we're very, very limited at the defensive end position, but I was encouraged by what I have seen out of those two individuals," Jones said. "Those two men are going to be really good football players here."
The Vols were missing several key players Saturday, especially at wide receiver, but should get most back this week.
"Eli Wolf right now is questionable," Jones said Monday about the sophomore tight end. "The good thing is that it's a sprained ankle so it's nothing surgical, so that was great.
"We expect (receivers) Tyler Byrd and Latrell Williams to be back. They'll be back practicing today. (Receiver) Josh Smith will be back. He actually could've played in the game Saturday, but we wanted to make sure he had another week of recovery and treatments so he'll be ready to go."
Jones listed kick returner Evan Berry, offensive tackle Marcus Tatum, defensive back Baylen Buchanan and linebacker Austin Smith as questionable for Saturday's game at Florida.
Because of his 91-yard touchdown return on the opening kickoff of Saturday's game, freshman running back Ty Chandler was awarded SEC freshman of the week. He carried the ball four times in the game for 14 yards.
Chandler, a Nashville native filling in for the injured Berry as kick returner, was one of three freshman running backs who entered the game Saturday. He is listed as the backup to junior John Kelly.
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