The Vols’ defensive line was arguably the biggest position of strength for the team in 2016. The quarterback will always affect the outcome of a game more than any other position on average, but when it comes to an actual unit made up of several players, the defensive line came up big for the Vols last year.
Injuries racked the linebacking corps and offensive line, the stable of running backs was in turmoil for several weeks in the middle of the season before finally settling on a rotation, the receiving corps was top heavy, and the secondary struggled all season. Injuries hit the defensive line as well, but that unit performed above and beyond their calling, especially from the defensive end position.
But now with Derek Barnett and Corey Vereen gone and injury concerns plaguing Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie, what position will be the Vols’ strength in 2017?
As I wrote this weekend, the Vols have lost a lot of experience from last season and will be replacing many starters across the board. That youth won’t excuse any failures the Vols may have in the season, but the drop-off in experience is still a fact the team will be dealing with. And it makes nailing down a position of strength even more difficult.
The Vols will have a first-time starter taking the reigns at quarterback. John Kelly has a sophomore and freshman as his backup, and Juan Jennings, Josh Smith, Ethan Wolf, and Jakob Johnson are the only scholarship upperclassmen in the receiving corps. Tennessee will have two new starters at defensive end and younger players having to step up in the interior, and the secondary has depth and inexperience concerns at corner.
That leaves the offensive line and linebackers with the fewest question marks.
Tennessee’s offensive line will easily be the most experienced unit on the team this season. The offensive line didn’t lose a single starter from last year, and it’s a unit that will be loaded with juniors and seniors. But the offensive line has yet to perform up to expectations over the last couple of seasons, so it’s difficult to assume the offensive line will be the strength of the team until they can prove themselves better.
The Vols’ linebackers have a solid blend of both seniority and youth, and that unit has the depth many other positions don’t on the roster. And that’s why they should be the strength of the team in 2017.
As long as he remains healthy, junior Darrin Kirkland Jr. should be the most talented player on Tennessee’s defense this year. Senior Cortez McDowell is projected to start alongside Kirkland, and the Vols have depth with redshirt junior Colton Jumper and redshirt sophomore Quart’e Sapp (as long as he can remain healthy too). Throw in the experience of redshirt junior Dillon Bates and senior Elliot Berry and potential of redshirt freshman Ja’Quain Blakely and incoming freshmen Will Ignont, Solon Page III, and Shanon Reid, and this unit could very well be the strongest position for the Vols this season.
Unless injuries devastate the position again this year, the Vols’ linebacking corps has the potential to be the bedrock of the defense and strongest unit on the whole team. Health and conditioning will make or break this unit, and their play will affect the whole defense.
Only time will tell which units turn out to be the strength of the Vols this year. Many units have plenty of potential, but the lack of experience makes it difficult to project. Based on what we know right now, however, Tennessee’s linebackers have the best chance of being the position of strength for the Vols this year.