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. And last week we previewed who will be fighting to start alongside Kendal Vickers at defensive tackle.
Now we move on to the players who will be having to replace some historic production from last season: the defensive ends.
Tennessee is losing 75 percent of their sack production from last season heading into 2017. And all of that came from defensive ends.
Derek Barnett, Tennessee’s new career sack leader, had 13 sacks last season for the Vols. Corey Vereen totaled seven sacks, and LaTroy Lewis chipped in 2.5 sacks in 2016. Only one current Vol defensive end registered a sack last season, and that is redshirt junior Jonathan Kongbo. And he only had one.
Replacing Derek Barnett, who set a record last season for most sacks in a Tennessee career, would be hard enough. But the Vols are having to replace two other valuable edge rushers as well.
The Vols are extremely low on production and experience at defensive end heading into 2017. But the talent and potential is there to make this one of the more interesting position battles of fall camp.
Kongbo is an obvious front runner for one of the two starting defensive end spots. When he joined the Vols’ roster last season, Kongbo was a highly-coveted junior college defensive end with all the physical tools to succeed in the SEC. But as the season wore on, injuries piled up at defensive tackle for the Vols, and they became desperate for help along the interior. Kongbo was moved from his natural position of defensive end and slid inside to help Tennessee at tackle.
Now that the Vols have more depth and appear at least temporarily healthier at defensive tackle, Konbgo has been moved back to end and figures to nail down a starting spot at the main defensive end position.
But who will start on the opposite end of Kongbo?
Junior lineman Kyle Phillips also had to move inside and play defensive tackle last season because of the injury situation at defensive tackle, and a nagging shoulder injury kept him from being as productive as he wanted to. But now he’s healthy and back at defensive end, his “true” position.
Phillips was a former five-star recruit out of Nashville in the 2015 class, but injuries and switching positions have kept him from living up to his potential. But a starting spot is far from a foregone conclusion for Phillips. He’ll have some tough competition from a handful of younger players.
Redshirt sophomore Darrell Taylor has finally added enough weight to his tall frame to be a legitimate threat in the defensive end group. When Taylor joined the Vols in 2015, he was listed as a 6-foot-4, 214 pound freshman. Fast forward a couple seasons, and Taylor is now listed on UT’s official roster at 6-foot-4, 254 pounds.
Taylor hasn’t played much outside of garbage time in his career thus far, but his athleticism and attitude will make him a contender for a starting spot and should earn him time in the defensive end rotation even if he doesn’t start.
Outside of those three, the Vols’ will be relying on true freshmen for depth and competition.
Matthew Butler has already been praised by his position coach, Brady Hoke, for his attitude and versatility. He and Deandre Johnson are expected to battle for a spot in the main four-man rotation at defensive end. Butler was a borderline three/four-star recruit out of North Carolina coming out of high school while Johnson was a former three-star prospect out of Miami. Johnson was also an early enrollee and has already had his black stripe removed.
The other true freshman competing for time this fall is Ryan Thaxton out of Virginia. Thaxton is much like Darrell Taylor in that both came in to Tennessee needing to gain some weight for the position. Thaxton is a potential redshirt candidate and is listed at 6-foot-4, 236 pounds on UT’s official roster. But given that Tennessee’s depth is somewhat thin at defensive end, Thaxton may be thrust into action earlier than coaches may like.
Tennessee’s defensive ends have some big shoes to fill this season. While the production heading into this season is lacking, the potential is there. And the Vols have several intriguing options at the position fighting for the right to start this fall.