With the start of fall camp right around the corner, it’s time to look at some picks to prosper at each position.
Over the next couple of weeks leading up to the beginning of practice, we’ll examine each position and spotlight a player who the Vols desperately need to perform well as well as one who could elevate the team if he lives up to expectations.
Think of these as the old Chicago White Sox WGN announcers’ “picks to click.”
There’s no greater cause for the wringing of Tennessee fans’ hands in 2017 than the defensive line. After all, a group that included one of the greatest players in the history of UT football in all-time sacks leader Derek Barnett was still wholly terrible thanks to being decimated by injuries. And the group fails to return Barnett, Corey Vereen or LaTroy Lewis. So, it may be even worse than it was a season ago, right? If so, the Vols are in desperate trouble, which means the group collectively need to perform better and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop needs to coach better in ’17. Hopefully for the Vols, the addition of veteran line coach Brady Hoke will help.
Let’s take a look at some guys who have to show up.
JONATHAN KONGBO, Redshirt Junior
Beyond John Kelly and one of the two quarterbacks, there may not be a more important player on Tennessee’s entire football team.
No pressure, kid.
Last year, the 6’6″, 264-pound defensive lineman was expected to be an instant-impact star after choosing the Vols over Alabama, Ole Miss, Ohio State, Oregon, USC, Florida State and everybody else as the No. 1-ranked JUCO player in the country. It didn’t come so easily so quickly, though.
With injuries in the defensive interior, the Vols moved Kongbo inside. He also played outside, too. He struggled to carve his role early, and folks were beginning to wonder if he was a bust. Then, everything came together late in the year, and he began to show just how good he could be.
He intercepted a Drew Lock pass against Missouri and returned it 59 yards for a touchdown. Then, in the Music City Bowl, he notched a career-high with four tackles and a sack, and Shoop began to get excited about his future.
This offseason, Kongbo has been fueled by the early disappointment of riding the pine upon his arrival in Knoxville. Shoop told the media (including GoVols247’s Grant Ramey) last week that Kongbo has been “on a mission” since the end of last year. He’s chiseled his frame in anticipation of being a full-time defensive end, and he’s one of the main reasons Shoop said he was excited about this group.
Now, Shoop doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt after all the preseason chirping a year ago. He has become known for talking up his players since arriving at UT, and it’s show-me season for the Vols. That goes for Kongbo, too.
Everybody knows just what kind of talent he can be, but the Vols don’t just need to hear it; they need to see it. With Barnett and Vereen gone, UT must find pass-rushing production from somewhere, and Kongbo is the perfect place from which it should come. If he can churn out 8-10 sacks, the Vols will be in a good spot.
Kongbo and untapped talent Darrell Taylor need to blossom into the type of pass rushers that can help ease the pain of Barnett’s loss. If they can’t, it’s going to be another long defensive season on Rocky Top.
KYLE PHILLIPS, Junior
It would have been very easy to put Taylor in this spot, but the Vols really do expect to get quality reps from both him and Kongbo.
The biggest wild card on the edge is Phillips.
As a standout at Hillsboro High School, Phillips was coveted by virtually everybody in the country, choosing Tennessee on national television at the U.S. Army All-American Game over LSU and Alabama. That was a game he dominated off the edge, by the way.
Then, he came to Knoxville, and everything stopped.
As a freshman, he moved inside to play some tackle out of necessity, a move he didn’t care for. After some message board whispers about a potential transfer after that season, Phillips returned and showed some glimpses of his ability before getting hurt yet again a season ago. He hasn’t been able to stay healthy since getting to college, and his back has been one of the main culprits.
Now, Phillips is (finally) fully healthy after missing spring practice once again. It’s going to be a fresh start in front of Shoop with two years to play. Though the 6’4″, 263-pound jumbo defensive end could move in and play some tackle, for the first time in his career, the Vols don’t really need for him to. They need him to push to start at end or at least be a quality No. 3 option.
There’s simply nobody else that have any proven snaps. Beyond that trio, the Vols are going to be forced to play youngsters.
In 17 career games, Phillips has 23 tackles and 3.5 tackles for a loss without registering a sack. That freakish talent sprinting around the corner and getting after high school quarterbacks in all-star games is a distant memory, but that wasn’t another lifetime ago. That was a healthy, in-shape Phillips before all the clutter and injuries got to him.
The Vols need for Phillips to put the rough start in the past and have a Robert Ayers-like resurgence. That may sound like a stretch, but it’s exactly the kind of leap UT needs in order to have a championship-caliber defense. It’s time for Phillips to live up to the blue-chip billing he was supposed to be.