Jonathan Kongbo

Tennessee’s Biggest 2017 Question: Where’s the Rush?

While some Tennessee fans may be wringing their hands over life after Joshua Dobbs, those concerns need to shift to the opposite line of scrimmage instead.

Between experienced junior Quinten Dormady and talented redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano, the Vols will have a capable quarterback behind center. It may be worth your worry to wonder how Larry Scott will fare in his first year as an offensive coordinator, but with running back John Kelly and a quality offensive line to help matters, it shouldn’t be as big of a deal moving forward on that side of the ball as some may think.

The real sweaty palms need to come on defense, particularly on the edges.

A season ago, UT’s defense was horrific in high-dollar coordinator Bob Shoop’s first year on Rocky Top. He has as much to prove as any player on the team after an embarrassing season that saw the Vols completely fall apart down the stretch. Yes, injuries were a contributing factor, but there’s still no reason South Carolina, Missouri, Kentucky and Vanderbilt should have been able to torch Tennessee in Year 4 of a coaching tenure.

If it’s not an indictment of recruiting depth against Butch Jones, then it’s got to fall on somebody. Jones is the head coach, so he deserves a portion of the blame, but Shoop gets paid $1 million a year to scheme things up better than he did a season ago.

If that happens again in 2017, there’s no reason why Tennessee should keep paying him.

“I think at the end of the year you always critique yourself and you quality control your personnel, your philosophy, your scheme, your execution and your personnel,” Shoop told GoVols247’s Patrick Brown recently. “I think I might have billed it (with) some unrealistic expectations, and when we got guys injured, maybe the guy calling the shots was a little bit stubborn right there, me. I really wanted to force-fit, this is my style of defense or whatever. I probably didn’t do a great job at times of tailoring things.”

As the story notes, Tennessee’s defense allowed 353 and 409 yards rushing to Texas A&M and Alabama. Later, it got much worse.

Kentucky gained 635 yards, including 443 on the ground. Missouri rushed for an unreal 420 yards en route to a 740-yard performance, the most yards ever allowed by a Tennessee defense. Then Vanderbilt scored 45 points in a season-ending upset.

Embarrassing.

What led to those gaudy numbers was a fundamental breakdown on all three levels of the defense. When you factor in the fact that Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Cam Sutton and especially Derek Barnett are gone, the Vols are going to have to shake things up under Shoop to improve. And they need to improve dramatically on that side of the ball in ’17 to even match the nine wins from a season ago.

The biggest loss is Barnett — a record-setting Tennessee legend when it comes to sacking the quarterback. Underrated are the losses of his end mates, Corey Vereen and LaTroy Lewis, too. Vereen was sneaky-good, and with all the added attention on Barnett, he performed well, even for an awful defense. Lewis gave quality late-down snaps, too.

Where do the Vols go from here? How do you replace the irreplaceable in Barnett and his supporting cast?

That’s the biggest question mark of the season. Tennessee has to generate a pass rush among the players remaining on its roster. It also has to build quality depth where, at least on the surface, none exists on the roster. While UT has some depth at defensive tackle [though the Vols need Shy Tuttle to get back from his injury sooner rather than later, and the first of the year isn’t looking like it’s going to happen…] the ends are paper-thin.

A year ago, Jonathan Kongbo played much of the time on the interior. Many reports are that he’s gotten his body in a good position, and he is showing the type of leadership that is necessary for a player of his ilk. After showing some flashes late last year, the Vols need the junior former No. 1-ranked JUCO player to live up to his ranking under new line coach Brady Hoke.

The other starter should be battled out between promising redshirt sophomore Darrell Taylor and oft-injured, formerly highly-ranked prospect Kyle Phillips. Neither player has proven he can be an every-down SEC defender, but both have immense talent. Taylor is over 250 pounds and is the kind of speed-rusher teams covet, but he’s got to prove he can get off blocks and play with more consistency than he did this spring. Phillips simply can’t stay on the field. His freshman and sophomore seasons were cut short with injuries, and he didn’t participate this spring, either. The Vols must have him all year.

Beyond that, your guess is as good as any where Tennessee will find depth.

The best guess right now is true freshman mid-term enrollee Deandre Johnson, who the Vols flipped from Mississippi State. The Miami native looked like a player who maybe can help right away this spring, and that’s big news for Tennessee. Perhaps one of the most intriguing players with college-ready bodies is freshman Matthew Butler, too. He is a jumbo defensive end who looks versatile enough to play either inside or out and should get snaps right away for the Vols, too.

Though Austin Smith and Ja’Quain Blakely are listed as linebackers, either could play with his hand down. Smith played defensive end after moving from linebacker a season ago, but he’s back to 236 pounds, and the redshirt sophomore could stay on the next level. With all the glut of second-level defenders, though, the quickest path to the field for him may be at end. Regardless, he’ll get snaps somewhere. He’s too talented to keep off the field. As for Blakely, he’s a good-looking player who redshirted a season ago and, now at 254 pounds, he looks like he can play at end. That’s where he should spend most of his time, and the Vols would love for him to break out this spring and prove deserving of some snaps.

If Mykelle McDaniel can remain in good standing with the Vols after being suspended last year, he’s a guy who could provide meaningful reps or at least is talented enough to.

Anybody projecting Ryan Thaxton, Kivon Bennett or Marquez Bembry right now knows more about the team than I. Nobody knows if those guys are going to be able to help in 2017 or when they’ll be able to at all.

And, yeah, that’s it.

So, as we said, the pass-rushers are far and away the biggest question marks and the utmost concern. If you can’t get to the quarterback and he has all the time to find open receivers downfield, he’ll find them. Tennessee’s defensive backs were terrible a season ago, and though new secondary coach Charlton Warren may actually get a player to turn around and play the ball every once in a while, it’s not realistic to think UT can go from as bad as it was defending the pass to the top half of the SEC.

In other words, the Vols need to find some guys to get after the quarterback from the end position (or from the second level like Quart’e Sapp is possibly capable of doing). If they do that, the defense stands a good chance of being much better.

If they can’t, it’s going to be a tough time to be a Vols fan when the defense takes the field again in 2017.

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