KNOXVILLE — One of Tennessee's new assistant football coaches will have one of the most unproven position groups on what will be a new-look team in 2017.
Former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke's hiring as the Volunteers' defensive line coach has yet to be formally announced, but he has begun studying the personnel he's inheriting.
While Tennessee is hoping two promising defensive tackles return to health following season-ending injuries in 2016, it must replace All-American Derek Barnett and productive seniors Corey Vereen and LaTroy Lewis at defensive end.
"I get that we lost Barnett and Vereen and I get that we lost Lewis," defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said last week, "but I'm excited to watch (Dimarya) Mixon, (Jonathan) Kongbo, (Kyle) Phillips and Darrell Taylor play outside.
"I'm excited to watch Kahlil (McKenzie) and a healthy Shy (Tuttle). I'm excited to watch Kendal Vickers. I'm excited to watch Alexis Johnson. Quay Picou in two weeks of working with Rock (Gullickson, the new strength coach) has changed his body and his demeanor tremendously.
"Those guys and these freshmen, it's going to be interesting to see how it plays out. We're going to be able to run eight or nine guys out there, and that's exciting to me."
It will be impossible for Tennessee to replace Barnett's game-changing talent, and Vereen chipped in seven sacks while benefiting from opponents focusing on containing the All-American on the other side. The three departing players accounted for 22.5 of Tennessee's 30 sacks in 2016.
Though returning defensive linemen combined for only 4.5 sacks, the Vols believe there's enough talent remaining at defensive end, but it's entirely unproven.facebook
While Mixon perhaps has been the most reliable, Kongbo and Taylor seem to have the most upside.
Kongbo enjoyed a strong finish to the season, including a four-tackle (two for loss) performance with a sack in the bowl game, after agreeing to slide inside to tackle at the continual urging of the coaching staff. And coaches and players have raved about Taylor's exploits in practice, though he had limited action in 2016.
After playing mostly inside last season out of necessity, Phillips should shift back outside this season, but the bigger question with the former five-star recruit is health. He's battled shoulder programs throughout his career, and it's affected him substantially. The shoulder surgery expected to limit him for spring practice is his third.
Vickers was the only defensive tackle to make it through the season unscathed, but he'll be limited in spring practice.
McKenzie (torn pectoral) and Tuttle (knee) are progressing nicely from their significant injuries last season, but neither will be full-go for spring practice.
Johnson is an unknown, but there are high hopes for the junior college transfer who played in just one game last season after he was suspended for nearly the entire offseason and an injury slowed him when playing time was most at hand.
Picou is a third-year player who should benefit from an increased workload this spring.
Tennessee signed six defensive linemen in its 2017 class. Deandre Johnson, Ryan Thaxton and Marquez Bembry are rangy defensive ends, Matthew Butler is versatile enough to play inside or out and Eric Crosby and Kivon Bennett are more traditional inside players.
Of the six, only Johnson is on campus and will go through spring practice, but the other five could have the chance to contribute with a new coach and rotation spots up for grabs.
"You really recruit mostly D-ends, and hopefully one of them ultimately becomes a three-technique," Shoop said. "If you're asking what they look like, I always say picture a power forward. That's what you're looking for, a guy who can put weight on, but he has an explosiveness. He's dynamic. He can be disruptive. He's physical.
"Then it's a guy like Crosby who's more in the mode of a Kahlil McKenzie and those guys who's a bigger body and what we term a one-technique. He's a space-eater and things like that. You ask about a Bob Shoop defense, it's about movement, it's about athletic ability and that's why we were trying all year to put Kongbo in a position that he might end up moving inside.
"I don't know what we're going to do there, but I'm really looking forward to this spring. We're going to have more competition, I think, than we had last year at all three levels of the defense, and that's very, very exciting."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.