Who’s New? Tennessee Defensive Line

It’s finally football time in Tennessee, and we’ll be squeezing every morsel of news out of every word that escapes new coach Jeremy Pruitt’s mouth over the next month leading up to the season opener in Charlotte against West Virginia.

But we are here to fully arm you with every bit of information we can leading up to the season’ start. In order to do that, we’ve got to get you up-to-date on all the new personnel you’ll be seeing on the football field in 2018.

More than 30 new players will suit up for the Big Orange who didn’t this spring. Many of those weren’t even in orange and white for the worst season in school history a year ago. That’s not a bad thing, either.

Pruitt came in and immediately determined the team that went 4-8 last year wasn’t equipped to win this year, either. So, he called on reinforcements. Over the next few days, we’ll brief you on the newbies at each position.

Let’s take a look at the offensive line.

DEFENSIVE LINE

EMMIT GOODEN, 6’3″, 306-pound Junior

Gooden’s long-and-winding road to Tennessee is well-chronicled, but it’s amazing that the former West Tennessee high schooler who committed to the Vols as a junior, backed off that pledge, tried to go to Mississippi State, wound up at JUCO and still circled back around to UT is on Rocky Top and looks poised to contribute.

The Vols certainly need him to.

Gooden is getting a bit of fame right now as one of the featured players on Netflix’s “Last Chance U” but Gooden did get that final opportunity, and now he needs to take advantage of it. It’s unclear whether he’ll wind up playing the nose position or the jumbo defensive end in the 3-4, but the guess is he’ll be able to rotate at either place. He’s battling for a starting job, and though it’s no certainty he’ll get it, he almost definitely will be in the mix for key reps.

The coaching staff is trying to get Gooden to be more consistent, and it’s important that he immediately hops in the mix because the Vols are short on difference-makers up front. They have the ability to go really big up there, though, and if Gooden can work his way in and be a force against the run, that could really shore things up for a unit that has been porous in recent memory in the run game. The Vols need him to be a major pickup.

KINGSTON HARRIS, 6’3″, 316-pound Freshman

Much like receiver Cedric Tillman, it’s crazy Harris played at such a powerhouse high school program and few big teams wanted him, especially considering that he already has flashed at times during camp. He’s probably one of the two first-year players in line to get some reps if the season started today. He’s not ready to start or anything like that, and he isn’t consistent, but Harris looks the part.

He didn’t even start in high school, backing up a future 5-star Ohio State commitment at Florida’s prestigious IMG Academy. Still, once UT coaches saw him in person, they felt like he was worthy of an offer. He’s a huge guy, and the Vols needed an upgrade in size.

He has a great frame and already looks like an SEC defensive lineman. It’s going to be fun to watch him develop with Tracy Rocker coaching him up. Nobody expects Harris to step in and set the league on fire this year. He’s raw, and he has a ways to go, but the path to playing time up front for the Vols isn’t crowded. He could find himself right up there for snaps, and UT needs for him to pick things up quickly.

KUROTT GARLAND, 6’3″, 275-pound Freshman

Another guy who few programs wanted but the Vols believe is a diamond in the rough is Garland, a Conyers, Georgia, native that UT found while scouting, offering (and finally losing to Florida State) wide receiver Jordan Young. Garland had offers from Charlotte and Tulane, but that’s pretty much it.

He’s big and country-strong though, and UT likes him. He may just be ready to get some reps in a thin front for the Vols in 2018. That would be crazy considering the lack of interest and the fact that Garland was the 1,160th-ranked player in the 247Sports Composite. He has been getting some second-team reps along with Mincey early in camp. If that remains the case, Garland almost certainly will play in some big games and probably even the season-opener against West Virginia.

Is part of that an indictment of Tennessee’s depth and talent up front? Possibly, but this is a unit that has guys like Shy Tuttle, Kyle Phillips and Alexis Johnson, so these are some players who were wanted in the recruiting process. Behind them, though, there is little proven depth, and Garland will have every opportunity to make a name for himself right away. Is that an ideal situation? No. True freshmen don’t normally flash on the defensive line in the SEC. But it’s where the Vols are, and Garland will get a baptism by fire.

JOHN MINCEY, 6’3″, 264-pound Freshman

Late in the process when Tennessee was struggling to make a lot of noise in the late signing period, the Vols did win a recruiting battle for a defensive lineman against SEC foes South Carolina and Arkansas. That was for Mincey, who is another prospect from Georgia. He hails from Homerville where he played for Clinch County High School.

Heard of it? Me neither. But his signing was part of a tireless effort for Tennessee’s staff to scramble and find some good players to outfit the class late in the cycle. Mincey looks like a nice find, at least so far. As I said above, he’s earned second-team reps, and though it would behoove him to add 15-20 pounds and some strength, Mincey is the kind of player who must help the Vols right away.

He and Garland almost certainly will work their way onto the field, and it’s vital that they find ways to make plays. Mincey’s film looks like he’s strong at the point of attack, and while he may need to work on his quickness, he does plenty enough well that there’s a good basis there with which to work. He will be fun to monitor as pads go on.

GREG EMERSON 6’3″, 305-pound Freshman

Tennessee’s highest-rated defensive lineman in last year’s class and a major recruiting victory was West Tennessee native Emerson who committed to Butch Jones’ staff and stayed true to the Vols throughout the coaching transition. Part of the reason is UT stuck with him despite a brutal leg injury suffered at The Opening that cost him his senior season.

He was noticeably rusty this spring, and he even moved over to the offensive line for some practices because he lacked a burst, but he’s back on the defensive line and looks a little healthier this fall. Where will he be in the pecking order? That’s uncertain as of now.

Emerson probably needs more time to get back to 100 percent, but he has some upside, and he is versatile enough that he could project at nose or the big defensive end position. He’s not ready yet, but it wouldn’t be right to write him off. After all, he was a universal 4-star prospect, and he’s a big mauler who will find a role down the road. It may just not be in 2018.

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