Seniors: Shy Tuttle, Kyle Phillips, Alexis Johnson
Juniors: Emmit Gooden
Sophomores: Matthew Butler, Kivon Bennett
Freshmen: Kingston Harris, John Mincey, Greg Emerson, Kurott Garland
Much like Tennessee’s linebackers, this unit has undergone a lot of changes from the end of the 2017 season till now. The Vols’ switch from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-4 defensive scheme has shifted the focus of what the Vols’ defensive linemen are counted on to do. And it’s led to several linemen undergoing some big changes in their weight and body composition.
In a 3-4 defensive scheme, there’s typically a nose tackle and two defensive ends. The nose tackle is usually a huge space eater (think Daniel McCullers during the 2012 season) whose primary job is to absorb two blockers at once. The defensive ends are bigger than those in a 4-3 defense and aren’t necessarily used as pass rushers. If they can get after the passer, that’s a plus. But typically ends in a 3-4 defense are used to stop the run and force running backs inside and away from the perimeter. Defensive ends in a 3-4 defense are usually larger and bulkier than ends in a 4-3 defense, which is why Kyle Phillips has put on a decent amount of weight this year.
Speaking of Phillips, he’ll be the primary defensive end for the Vols this season and should be able to find success there. He wasn’t the most effective pass rusher in a 4-3 defense, but he has the frame to add on the weight he has and still play well. He’s now around 6-foot-4, 273 pounds and looks ready to be a leader on Tennessee’s defense.
The other defensive end position will be interesting to watch, though.
With Jonathan Kongbo officially moving to outside linebacker, that leaves the Vols with inexperienced options at the other defensive end spot. Both Kivon Bennett and Matthew Butler have changed their bodies to fit in this role. Bennett has slimmed down to 266 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame, and Butler is now at 6-foot-4, 276 pounds. I expect one of these two players to be Tennessee’s other defensive end if they decide to have two “smaller” guys at the end positions.
If Pruitt and his defensive staff want to go with a bulkier front and have Phillips as the only true “end” on the line, then they have more options at their disposal.
Shy Tuttle will likely be Tennessee’s starting nose tackle. As long as he stays healthy, he should flourish in that role and be exactly what Pruitt and his staff need him to be as a space eater with some athleticism. But Alexis Johnson and Emmit Gooden could potentially be used as a bigger defensive end if the staff truly wants.
Gooden is 6-foot-3, 306 pounds and Johnson is up to 6-foot-3, 314 pounds. Johnson will probably serve as the No. 2 defensive tackle when UT goes with four down linemen, but Gooden could beat him out for that spot this fall. If he doesn’t, Gooden could potentially be a bigger defensive end if the staff doesn’t trust Bennett or Butler off the edge.
But if Gooden and Johnson remain on the interior (which is the more likely scenario), then Bennett and Butler are your candidates to play defensive end. And that leaves the rest of the depth to be made up of true freshmen.
Kingston Harris is the biggest of the Vols’ newcomers along the defensive line. At 6-foot-3, 316 pounds, he already has the size needed at defensive tackle. He shouldn’t be needed a great deal this season unless the Vols are playing a lot of 4-3 schemes in a game, however.
Greg Emmerson is one of the more intriguing options in this unit. He played both defensive and offensive line in the spring, and at 6-foot-3, 305 pounds, he has the ideal size to play inside. But he also is athletic enough to play on the outside of the line too. And that’s assuming he stays on defense and doesn’t move back to the offensive line.
Emmerson is the wildcard in this bunch, and he’s one of the more talented linemen in the unit as well. He’ll need some time to develop to fulfill that potential, but it’s certainly there.
The staff would love to be able to redshirt both John Mincey and Kurott Garland this season. And as long as this unit doesn’t suffer a couple significant injuries, they should be able to use this as a developmental year.
But avoiding injuries is far from a guarantee with this group. Vol fans know all about Shy Tuttle’s injury history, and Kyle Phillips has been nicked and bruised in his career as well. Emerson dealt with an injury in high school too.
If Tennessee can avoid catastrophic injuries with their defensive linemen this year, they could prove to be a fairly productive unit. But the Vols’ defensive line this year is far from what Pruitt and his staff want the line to look like in the future, and this year might be a struggle on this front if the depth gets tested.