Some notes and observations from the defensive side of the ball during the open portion of Tennessee’s practice.
Today was my (Daniel) first day watching the defense, so I want to give my initial takes on some of the defensive players, and I apologize if it’s a bit repetitive from what Houston wrote yesterday because we see a lot of the same things sometimes. I’ll take it position-by-position:
Defensive line: Stating the obvious right off the bat, but Kahlil McKenzie is really, really big and completely looks the part. It’s tough to make many judgements on him until the pads come on, but if he plays half as well as he looks as a prospect, he’s going to have an early impact for the Vols. One general trend I noticed for the defensive line is that the defensive ends look like they’ve cut weight as a position group over the offseason. Corey Vereen (who has a knee brace on), Derek Barnett, Dimarya Mixon and even Curt Maggitt to an extent all look a bit leaner and quicker. That’s probably not a coincidence – it looks like that was a point of emphasis for the offseason program. Really Kyle Phillips is the only guy who looks fairly large at end. Newcomer Darrell Taylor fits that smaller, more athletic mold perfectly as well.
That is not the case at all at defensive tackle where there is a crazy amount of size. McKenzie, Shy Tuttle, Kendal Vickers, Owen Williams and others at DT look really big. The defensive line passes the eye test in a way I haven’t seen in years.
It’s clear that they’re going to pick their spots with Trevarris Saulsberry. He was in and out of drills. He’s a redshirt senior and knows what to do – it’s more about saving him for whatever they can get out of him in the season. Chris Weatherd, who also looks light and quick, was working exclusively with the defensive ends on Wednesday. He did that a lot in the spring and that appears to be his permanent home after playing a lot of linebacker in 2014.
Linebackers: This is a group that’s tough to get a feel for without the pads. There are so many options at inside linebacker – literally seven at this point in Darrin Kirkland Jr., Dillon Bates, Jakob Johnson, Gavin Bryant, Colton Jumper, Kenny Bynum and Austin Smith. Bynum was the first guy through drills on Wednesday, but that’s probably based on seniority as much as anything. I got my first look at Kirkland, and he definitely passed the eye test with a good combination of size and footwork.
At outside linebacker, Quart’e Sapp was somebody who caught my eye today. All of the linebackers are fast, but he runs more like a skill player. He’ll need a little more size and strength before really factoring into the conversation on defense, but he can be a special teams star as a freshman, in my opinion.
Secondary: I know Houston mentioned him yesterday, but cornerback Justin Martin really stood out to me as well. He’s tall, has incredibly long arms, glides around the field and catches the ball like a receiver. I don’t know about his physicality, and I like Emmanuel Moseley a lot at that second CB spot, but Martin’s going to be in the conversation to play a lot one way or another this year. Butch Jones called Martin out over the microphone, saying that Josh Malone requested to go against him “all day” in the battle of Nashville.
Rashaan Gaulden worked with the safeties in the drill I saw. We haven’t seen them line up as a full secondary yet, so we can’t say too much about how they want to use him or who the options at nickel will be.
• DE Andrew Butcher, S Max Arnold and DE LaTroy Lewis are still being held out due to injury
• DL Quay Picou continues to attend practice, but is a spectator until he’s fully cleared to play
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