Tennessee's defensive front endured one of the most tumultuous seasons of any position group in college football last autumn.
Volunteers defensive linemen began last season under the tutelage of position coach Jimmy Brumbaugh, but Brumbaugh was fired by head coach Jeremy Pruitt after the fourth game, which was the 34-7 loss to Kentucky inside Neyland Stadium. Though Pruitt took over Brumbaugh's responsibilities the rest of the way, the defensive linemen never showed any improvement as the program veered into a 3-7 ditch.
The defensive front is now under Rodney Garner's guidance, and new Vols head coach Josh Heupel liked what he saw Saturday during Tennessee's second spring scrimmage inside Neyland.
"Without watching the tape, I thought the defense as a whole made some strides today," Heupel said on a Zoom call. "I thought our front four did a great job of playing on the other side of the line of scrimmage and being disruptive and getting after the quarterback. I thought there were tons of positives on both sides overall."
Saturday marked the final scrimmage before Tennessee stages its Orange & White Game next Saturday, with that contest having a 4 p.m. start.
Though Tennessee allowed 30 or more points in six of its seven losses last season and still has former linebackers Henry To'o To'o and Quavaris Crouch residing in the NCAA transfer portal, the Vols do return multiple veterans up front and in the secondary. LaTrell Bumphus, Matthew Butler, Ja'Quain Blakely, Darel Middleton and Aubrey Solomon are giving Garner and defensive coordinator Tim Banks five fifth-year seniors from which to work up front.
"As a collective group, they're starting to understand what Coach Garner and Coach Banks are asking them to do," Heupel said. "They're playing with better technique. The communication up front has been much better. They're coming off the football better and have just made huge strides in these last few days."
Heupel actually had a little bit of praise for everyone.
When asked about the quarterback trio of Brian Maurer, Harrison Bailey and Hendon Hooker, he said each had come "light years operationally" within the faster tempo. Heupel stated the offensive line has the chance to be a really good group, liked the depth and consistency of his tight ends, and he singled out yet again the play of sophomore running back Jabari Small.
"He understands how we want to play," Heupel said. "He understands what we're doing. He's been good without the ball in his hands. I just feel like he's in a really good spot."
Odds and ends
Heupel did not have an update on the suspended quartet of freshman quarterback Kaidon Salter, freshman defensive lineman Isaac Washington, freshman linebacker Aaron Willis and redshirt freshman linebacker Martavius French. ... Sophomore receiver Malachi Wideman hasn't been at full strength this spring, but Heupel said he would be fine by the start of summer workouts. ... Heupel on his ceremonial first pitch before Friday night's Tennessee-Vanderbilt baseball game: "I was a little disappointed with the one-hopper."