When looking back on the 2016 season, Vol fans won’t remember that team’s defense very fondly. Tennessee’s defense was ravaged by injuries, and they set historic lows in rushing yards allowed per game thanks to several teams carving them up on the ground.
But a new year brings renewed optimism, and fans are hopeful the second year under defensive coordinator Bob Shoop will be much better than the first. However, the Vols are only a week into fall camp, and one defensive coach thinks Tennessee definitely needs the rest of the month to get into shape before the season begins.
“We have a long way to go to be a good defensive football team, and that starts up front,” defensive line coach Brady Hoke said after practice on Sunday.
Hoke’s words of caution weren’t all he had to say, however. Hoke had plenty of praise to pass around for some of his position players, but he made sure to reiterate that it’s still early in camp and there’s plenty of work to be done.
“I would like to roll 10 guys out for a football game up front,” Hoke would go on to say. “We’ll see where it all shakes out closer to the end of fall ball. But (Matthew Butler) and Kivon Bennett have both done a nice job so far. But, again, we have a long way to go.”
Both Butler and Bennett are versatile freshmen who have the frame and athleticism to fit in at either defensive tackle or defensive end. And Hoke plans on trying out both players at both positions to see where they fit best.
Those two aren’t the only freshmen that have stood out to Hoke, however. Eric Crosby, who’s listed at 6-foot-1, 336 pounds on the roster, has also managed to catch Hoke’s attention. But Hoke was hesitant to say when exactly Crosby will be ready to contribute to the team.
“I think he’s going to be fine,” Hoke said of Crosby. “I can’t tell you when he’s going to be fine, but Eric has done a nice job. He’s probably a little overweight right now. So am I. But the one thing that he’s done is continue to push through even when he’s a little tired. He’s a better athlete than you would think as you look at him.”
The Vols’ defensive line is full of versatility, and junior Jonathan Kongbo showed off his versatility last season when he moved inside to play defensive tackle. Kongbo admitted last week that he was reluctant to move inside at first and let that bad attitude affect him. But Kongbo insisted he’s changed this season, and Hoke has seen the fruits of that alteration.
“This summer, (Konbgo) was on a mission,” Hoke stated. “He was on a mission to become a more complete football player. His weight is up to about 273, 275 pounds. He’s handling that well. He’s just matured.
“I wasn’t here a year ago, but he’s told me that he was kind of an angry guy a lot of the time and didn’t really like playing inside and all that. But he’s come to me and told me he’ll play anywhere I want him to play.”
Hoke said earlier in the day that he was impressed with Kyle Phillips’ progress and leadership as a junior. But he also likes what he’s seen from redshirt sophomore Darrell Taylor in that regard as well.
“Darrell has come out and played hard every day,” Hoke said. “It hasn’t always been perfect, but if you’re playing hard enough you sometimes make up for not playing perfect. He’s shown good leadership by example.
“I think overall, probably Taylor and (Kendal) Vickers have really shown the most so far in fall camp.”
The Vols will need both Phillips and Taylor to step up this season with so much of the team’s sack production gone from last year. Derek Barnett, Corey Vereen, and LaTroy Lewis, all defensive ends, are no longer on the team this year. And those three combined for 22.5 of Tennessee’s 30 sacks last season.
If Tennessee is going to have success on defense this year, their front seven will need to get pressure on the quarterback. Brady Hoke knows that, and he hopes his players will respond to the expectations and help 2017 not turn out like 2016.