We get you ready for the start of spring practice for Tennessee’s football team with our position preview series. Up next is a look at the Vols’ defensive line. You can read our preview of the Vols’ linebackers here.
Seniors: Emmit Gooden
Juniors: Ja’Quain Blakely (RS), Matthew Butler, Kivon Bennett, Aubrey Solomon
Sophomores: John Mincey
Freshmen: Greg Emerson (RS), Kingston Harris (RS), Kurott Garland (RS)
Tennessee must replace quite a bit of production along the defensive line this year. Shy Tuttle, Alexis Johnson, Kyle Phillips, and Paul Bain have all graduated. That leaves defensive line coach Tracy Rocker to replace 150 tackles, 9.0 sacks, and 17.0 tackles for a loss with an inexperienced group.
Jeremy Pruitt and Rocker hit the recruiting trail hard to try and replace the departing production. The Vols signed four defensive linemen – two of which were junior college players. Pruitt even tapped into the transfer market, adding Michigan transfer Aubrey Solomon.
Unfortunately for Tennessee, whether or not Solomon will be eligible this fall remains up in the air. Both Solomon and Georgia transfer DeAngelo Gibbs are currently waiting to hear from the NCAA whether they’ll be granted immediate eligibility after transferring to Knoxville. A decision isn’t expected to come down until May or June. Solomon likely has a better chance of being granted immediate eligibility, though.
With Solomon’s status up in the air, Pruitt and company will plan as if he won’t be able to play. If the Georgia native can play, it’ll be a tremendous boost to the defensive line as Emmit Gooden is the only D-linemen with extensive collegiate experience currently on the roster.
Solomon had a tremendous freshman campaign with the Wolverines. He then suffered a knee injury just five games into last season, limiting his playing time. Coming out of high school as a five-star defensive tackle, Solomon was ranked No. 23 in the country and the No. 2 defensive tackle according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. His strength and ability to play multiple positions up front would be a welcomed addition to a group that lacks just that.
The Michigan transfer will practice this spring as if he is playing this fall, but Tennessee will still plan as if he isn’t. Which means Gooden and four other second-year players must step up. In addition to Gooden, those players are John Mincey, Kurott Garland, Kingston Harris, and Greg Emerson.
Gooden will be the focus of the D-line if Solomon can’t participate. If Tennessee’s defensive line is going to be productive in 2019, it will have to be because the junior college product took a big step forward. Last season, he had 33 tackles, seven tackles for a loss, and a sack despite not being a starter. At 6-foot-3, 306 pounds, Gooden can play both tackle and end.
As for the younger second-year players, they all have their own unique story.
Mincey was a player that caught the eye of Tennessee’s coaches early on in the season. He had locked down a second-team spot until an elbow injury before the Florida game slowed him down. As is the case with Emerson, who was a four-star tackle coming out of high school as the No. 136 overall player in the country. Unfortunately for the Jackson, Tennessee native, Emerson suffered a nasty ankle injury his senior year of high school and redshirted as a freshman at UT.
As for Harris, he spent most of the season working along the offensive line. Harris played on the defensive line against West Virginia and East Tennessee State, but he wasn’t moved back to the defensive line until the Vanderbilt game. The coaches like his potential.
Tennessee’s coaches also like the upside of Garland, who was a late addition to the 2018 class. Garland took advantage of the new four-game redshirt rule, playing against ETSU, Georgia, Charlotte, and Missouri while maintaining his eligibility.
The favorite to step up amongst the defensive line may be Emerson, but Matthew Butler could fill that role as well. He found playing time on the second unit last season, appearing in nine games. Butler recorded 13 tackles and one tackle for a loss.
Last season, Tennessee recorded 25 sacks as a team. Not only did that rank 11th out of 14 in the SEC, but it tied for just the 76th-most sacks in the country. In a conference in which teams must stop the run and get pressure on the quarterback in order to win, that’s not going to cut it. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter which second-year player steps up and steals the show, but someone has to, and the others have to be productive.
In addition to the second-year players, Tennessee will be leaning heavily on its junior college signees to come in and be productive right away.
The Vols signed the No. 1 JUCO defensive tackle in the country in Savion Williams, and because of a lack of bodies, he could step in and play right away in the fall. Williams is exactly what Tennessee has been missing over the last few seasons: an absolute dog in the trenches.
At 6-foot-4, 300 pounds, Williams is as physical of a defensive lineman as you’ll find. He already has an NFL body, can still get a push against a double team, and has violent hands. In addition, Williams possesses enough athleticism and quickness to sack the quarterback. At Lackawanna Community College this past season, the Maryland native led a defense that allowed just 12.1 points per game.
Tennessee will also look to Darel Middleton to provide an instant impact as a junior college signee. Middleton will likely take longer to adjust to playing football in the SEC, but at 6-foot-6, the Knoxville native possesses the tools to receive early playing time. He spent this past season at East Mississippi Community College and can play either tackle or end.
Elijah Simmons – the lone freshman defensive lineman signee – is an interesting prospect. Simmons is 6-foot, 350 pounds, but will likely need a year to get into proper shape. However, he’s a massive nose guard who moves weight in the trenches. Like Williams, he can take on a double team and drive the pocket. Simmons has the tools to be a very productive college football player for the Volunteers.
Those three linemen won’t be with the Vols this spring, however. So they’ll have some ground to make up once they do arrive on campus.
Tennessee’s 2019 defensive line room poses a lot of questions, but it also boasts intriguing prospects. Rocker and Pruitt will look to sort out those questions when spring practice begins on March 7th. This spring will be critical for the development of such a young nucleus.