Throughout the summer, we’ll preview some of the big position battles on Tennessee’s roster for this upcoming fall. Tennessee has many position battles this season, and some battles are just for one starting spot while others affect an entire unit.
We started our series off by looking at who will help Jauan Jennings catch passes in the wide receiver group. Then we looked at who will step up in the defensive backfield now that Cam Sutton is gone. Now we move on to the players who battle it out in the trenches: the defensive tackles.
Tennessee’s defensive tackle position was obliterated by injuries last year. And because of that, the Vols run defense deteriorated down the stretch. But it did allow some other players to get experience in the trenches, and it sets up a solid group for 2017 as long as they can stay healthy.
Kendal Vickers will undoubtedly be one of the starters for the Vols at defensive tackle. Vickers was chosen as one of the three player representatives at SEC Media Days for Tennessee, and he is easily the most experienced defensive tackle on the roster with 26 starts in his career.
But who will be in the rotation behind Vickers? And who will start alongside him in the interior?
If Kahlil McKenzie is fully recovered from the pectoral injury he sustained in the Alabama game last year that ended his season, he will likely be the favorite to earn a starting job beside Vickers. The junior enters this season with many questions left to answer as he’s failed to live up to his billing as a former five-star recruit. But the potential is there, and his in better physical shape now than he has been at any point in his Tennessee career.
Shy Tuttle might arguably be the most talented and athletic interior lineman the Vols have. But injuries have plagued what looked to be a very promising career, and the junior tackle could use a bounce back 2017 campaign. Tuttle has sustained season-ending injuries in both of his first two seasons with the Vols.
Tuttle’s health will be a big factor in the production of the Vols’ defensive line this season. If Tuttle can stay healthy and play in most of the Vols’ games this year, Tennessee’s depth at defensive tackle will be bolstered. In fact, if Tuttle can regain some of his old form before his injuries, he could even nab a starting spot in the interior.
But if injuries do plague Tuttle and McKenzie again, look for another junior to step up in their place. In fact, this player could compete for a starting job even with both of them healthy.
Quay Picou hasn’t made a lot of noise in his first two years with Tennessee, but he’s in line for an expanded role this season and is a legitimate candidate for a starting spot. Picou came into Tennessee as a four-star prospect and has primarily been used in a reserve role. But with so many unknowns on the Vols’ defensive line this season, Picou could prove to be a valuable asset.
Redshirt junior Alexis Johnson is also a name to watch as competition heats up this fall. Johnson only appeared in one game for Tennessee last season, but he’s thought to have a high ceiling and could provide valuable depth at the very least.
If worse comes to worse, someone like Jonathan Kongbo or Kyle Phillips could slide over from defensive end to defensive tackle like last season. But there’s a greater chance one of Tennessee’s hihgly-touted freshmen will fill in before that.
In a perfect world, freshmen Eric Crosby and Kivon Bennett won’t have to see the field in any significant capacity in 2017 for the Vols. But Crosby, a former four-star recruit, and Bennett, a former borderline three-star/four-star prospect, are there to provide support should injuries befall Tennessee’s interior linemen again like last season.
If the Vols can stay healthy at defensive tackle, they have plenty of intriguing options to start in the interior of the defensive line. Even if not, then Tennessee should finally have the depth to stay competitive in the trenches should a player or two go down for a significant period of time.