Jonathan Kongbo

Post-Spring Projections: Tennessee Defensive Line

Let’s continue the series with a look at the Tennessee defensive line depth chart exiting spring with a prediction of what to expect this September.

Spring practice — like most all the springs before of the Butch Jones era — didn’t tell us much. But after what we saw and read, we can make some prognostications about what we may see, or at least expect to see, once fall practice starts. So, over the course of the next couple of weeks, I’m going to break down position-by-position what we saw, what we read and what I’ve heard about to project who’s gonna play where come opening weekend against Georgia Tech.

We’ll continue this series with our look at the defensive line

Defensive end

Life without Derek Barnett isn’t going to be easy.

Though Tennessee is beginning to recruit to the defensive line very well again with Brady Hoke replacing Steve Stripling coaching the position, there’s going to be a bit of a lull in 2017 along the defensive front as the Vols look to replace generational pass-rusher Barnett — who wound up a first-round pick by the Eagles — and Corey Vereen, who did a nice job coming off the other edge. LaTroy Lewis, who is looking to latch on with the Raiders, was an underrated loss, too.

So, while UT could be in excellent position in the interior if the defensive tackles come back strong and remain healthy, getting to the passer is going to be an issue unless some unknowns emerge and live up to their massive potential.

Staying on the outside, let’s discuss some of those names who must have impact seasons for the Vols to be strong on the defensive front. Jonathan Kongbo, a 6’6″, 270-pound lineman who was moved around and played a lot on the interior of the line a season ago, is going to move back to defensive end where he was the nation’s top-ranked JUCO player a season ago. Though he had just 11 tackles and a sack in 2016, he began to tap into some of that limitless potential at the end of the season. He intercepted a Drew Lock pass and took it back 59 yards for a touchdown to show his athleticism, and after a year in the weight room, he looked strong this spring at defensive end. The Vols need for him to make his presence felt early and often.

The other two guys who were top-shelf recruits who haven’t yet touched what they were supposed to be are junior Kyle Phillips and redshirt sophomore Darrell Taylor. Both will have every opportunity to play a lot of snaps at end if they’re healthy. Let’s start with Phillips, a former 5-star talent wanted by everybody in the country who chose UT over LSU and others. Though his first two years have been disappointing and injury-riddled, the 6’4″, 259-pound lineman has the opportunity to show everybody why he was so heavily recruited. To do that, he needs to move past the shoulder injuries and produce on the field. As for Taylor, he’s got another year of eligibility considering he redshirted a year, and the 6’4″, 240-pound edge-rusher with a strong burst should lock down a starting role right away.

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Beyond Kongbo, Phillips and Taylor, it’s anybody’s guess where the depth will come. Deandre Johnson is a mid-term freshman who originally committed to Mississippi State before the Vols flipped him. The Miami product was coveted by a bunch of high-profile teams when he committed to the Vols, and he looked like he could possibly help out this spring. With so few bodies, he almost has to. At 6’4″, 235 pounds, he needs to get into the weight room and work out as if he’s going to be in the two-deep rotation because he just might. Redshirt freshman Mykelle McDaniel is another player who may wind up in the rotation. He was a late addition to UT, and after being disciplined in December for a violation of team rules, it was unclear what his future would be with the team. If he’s back and in good stead, he may wind up being a player for the Vols.

Of all the prospects UT has coming in (Matthew Butler, Kivon Bennett, Ryan Thaxton and Marquez Bembry), Butler without question has the clearest path and the best chance at immediate playing time. At 6’4″, 280 pounds and built like a brick wall, the Garner, North Carolina, native has impressed coaches early with his in-shape arrival. He’s a guy who the Vols were thrilled to get, and Butler may wind up contributing right away. He may have to along with Johnson. Bennett — the son of former Alabama and Buffalo Bills great Cornelius “Biscuit” Bennett — is a likely redshirt candidate to do some body reshaping, and though the Vols would love for a speed-rusher like Bembry to be ready in ’17, coming off a knee injury, he may need some extra time as well. That leaves Thaxton, who looked great in street clothes at the spring game, but he wasn’t one of the two guys defensive coordinator Bob Shoop mentioned at a recent Big Orange Caravan stop in Chattanooga.

That would be Butler and Johnson.

“Probably the guy who’s maybe the most ready for the 2017 season as a rookie is the Butler kid, Matt Butler,” Shoop said Saturday afternoon during Tennessee’s opening big Orange Caravan stop at First Tennessee Pavilion, according to GoVols247’s Ryan Callahan. “He’s kind of come in on a mission. He’s very mature, very driven, has a mindset as if he wants to — it’s not in his mindset to redshirt. That’s not part of his vocabulary.

“He’d like to compete with these guys and see what happens.”

That would mean a defensive end rotation of Kongbo, Phillips, Taylor, Butler and Johnson with the potential of the Vols going to a jumbo package and moving a guy like Quay Picou or perhaps Alexis Johnson out there. It’s also possible outside linebacker Austin Smith, who played some defensive end a season ago before getting hurt, could play with his hand down as well. The Vols could use another body or two at the position, but the youngsters need some time to develop.

Defensive tackle

At tackle, it has the potential to be a completely different story if Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle come back healthy. For McKenzie, that shouldn’t be an issue. It’s just a matter of playing at the form of his former 5-star recruit status. So far, he’s not come anywhere near matching the “can’t-miss” label he had when he came in to Knoxville. He lost weight before his first season, and after working on his technique last year, he’s a junior and a prime breakout candidate. The Vols certainly need him to be the big, strong run-stopper he was tabbed to be. He played in just seven games before tearing his pectoral muscle against Alabama and being lost for the season. 

Tuttle, on the other hand, has shown flashes of being one of the most dominant defensive players on the team when he’s healthy during his first two seasons. Problem is, he hasn’t been healthy much, suffering season-ending injuries both years. The 6’2″, 311-pound junior has played just 13 games in two years, and the Vols desperately want to see him healthy and on the field. Still, his status is up in the air entering the fall.

Beyond those two, the Vols have plenty of strong-looking depth on the inside. One of the most underrated players on the entire team is rising redshirt senior Kendal Vickers, who reshaped his body from a defensive end late arriver as a freshman to a quality contributor the past two years on the interior of the line. He’ll start for the Vols in 2017, and he’s got the potential to anchor a very strong unit up the middle, especially if Tuttle and McKenzie come back healthy. Vickers is not spectacular, but he’s a steady player who is a quality starter for the Vols and a third guy if McKenzie and Tuttle live up to their potential.

Alexis Johnson looked this spring like he is going to be a big help, if not a potential sleeper starter. At 6’2″, 295 pounds, he’s in shape and plays with a burst. After missing all of last year after being suspended for personal issues, Johnson will start his UT career on the field a season late, but if he can emerge as the kind of player the Vols wanted when he was offered by Alabama, Georgia and others as one of the top JUCO defensive tackles in the country, he’ll pay major dividends.

Picou’s athleticism is something that is exciting to project as well. He was forced into action as a true freshman long before he was ready, and that essentially burned a year of his eligibility. Now, the 6’1″, 277-pound lineman should be firmly in the rotation as a junior, and there’s at least a possibility he could slide outside some though he doesn’t have the speed to get to the quarterback much. He’s a player who should help the Vols a lot in his final two years. Finally, Paul Bain is a 6’5″, 290-pound redshirt junior who transferred from Tusculum and is a guy who showed flashes in orange a year ago. Though he isn’t a sexy pick, Bain is a good football player who will help the Vols in his final two years. All the guy does is make plays when he’s on the field, so expect him to be there.

Conclusion

A glance at Tennessee’s defensive line depth chart probably doesn’t give you the warm-and-fuzzies like it did a season ago. But with Hoke at the helm and some talent with which to work, the Vols could piecemeal a good group. Will they dominant? No, probably not. And there are A TON of ifs. But…

IF Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie return to form on the defensive interior and…

IF Darrell Taylor, Jonathan Kongbo and Kyle Phillips can show everybody why they were recruits everybody in the nation wanted and…

IF Matthew Butler and Deandre Johnson can step right in and play meaningful, quality snaps and…

IF Alexis Johnson and Kendal Vickers are more than just nice, steady players but impact SEC linemen, then…

The Vols could wind up with a good defensive line. There are plenty of reasons to worry on the defense, and though Hoke is bringing in some marquee recruits, those guys can’t help in 2017. Some magic needs to happen, and players need to step up.

Prediction

DE – Jonathan Kongbo, Kyle Phillips, Matthew Butler
DT – Shy Tuttle, Kahlil McKenzie, Paul Bain
DT – Kendal Vickers, Alexis Johnson, Quay Picou
DE – Darrell Taylor, Deandre Johnson, Mykelle McDaniel

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