KNOXVILLE — Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt knows he enters the 2019 season with a young defensive line.
So on Wednesday, he became more hands-on his approach to helping them improve.
At one point during practice periods open to media at Haslem Field, he set his focus on Michigan transfer Aubrey Solomon, working on technique. He did the same with senior Emmit Gooden and redshirt freshman Greg Emerson.
The Vols lost four seniors on the defensive line after the 2018 season, so there are chances for playing time for what is expected to be a youthful group.
Pruitt was critical of the team's defense recently, saying the offense "kicked their tail." He also realizes to be an effective defense requires pressuring quarterbacks. That could come any number of ways, but the best way to do so is with the guys up front because that allows the rest of the defense to cover backs and receivers.
Considering the Vols finished 11th in the 14-team Southeastern Conference in sacks last season, they could use all the help they could get.
"If you have great pass rushers, guys that can win one-on-one (matchups), obviously putting pressure on the quarterback does that," Pruitt said recently. "You have got to be able to put pressure on the offense, whether it's by rushing four, rushing six or rushing five. You have got to be able to hide the stress, put pressure on them when the ball's in the air. You have got to have ball hawks."
Alexis Johnson, Kyle Phillips and Shy Tuttle started every game on Tennessee's defensive line a season ago, with Gooden starting alongside Tuttle at nose tackle in the season finale against Vanderbilt. Jonathan Kongbo, who started five of the first six games before a season-ending knee injury against Auburn, is also gone.
With Gooden the only returning defensive lineman with notable experience — he had 33 tackles and a sack last season — opportunities will be there. Solomon had a solid freshman season before injuries took most of his sophomore year at Michigan, but he is currently waiting to see if the NCAA will clear him to be eligible immediately. If he isn't, the Vols will lean on a number of inexperienced underclassmen up front on defense.
Even if Solomon is available, he enters with limited experience, though more than most of Tennessee's defensive linemen.
Which is why Pruitt — who normally focuses his attention in practice on the secondary — was so invested in the defensive line, along with position coach Tracy Rocker.
"There's not many guys that have played a lot of ball," Pruitt said recently. "I think as a group the guys have worked hard in the offseason, but until you learn how to go out there and strain and do it over and over again and not make mental errors and learn how to play, how to practice and do it the right way — we have very few guys that have done much of that.
"Emmit Gooden played more than the rest of them; John Mincey was getting an opportunity to play and he got injured last year. Kurott Garland played four games, Kingston Harris played in four, so they played (few) enough to be redshirted. I think that was good for them, good experience, but we've got a long way to go there."