New RTI contributor Murphy Carlton contributed to this article
After four seniors from the defensive line graduated at the end of the 2018 season, it’s safe to say that the Vols have some question marks in the trenches as they look ahead to 2019. Spring practice has been in full swing, and Jeremy Pruitt has been keeping a close eye on the defensive line during practice.
Currently, the Vols have four players on the D-line that are not practicing. Savion Williams, Darel Middleton, and Elijah Simmons are supposed to arrive in the summer along with the rest of Tennessee’s 2019 signing class, and Kurott Garland has been unable to practice due to a minor injury.
“Kurott has not had a chance to participate in the spring,” Pruitt said after practice on Tuesday. “He will be back and ready to go here probably in a couple of weeks.”
The former three-star prospect out of Conyers, Georgia joined the Vols prior to the 2018 season but used his freshman year as a redshirt season. He’s listed at 6-foot-3, 303 pounds and should provide some depth along the interior of the line once healthy.
Once the Vols have all of their players on campus and participating in practice, Pruitt and defensive line coach Tracy Rocker will be able to gauge where the defensive line stands as a whole. Pruitt talked about what he’s seen from his group so far this spring, saying the competition is better there now.
“These guys have to improve every day,” Pruitt stated. “We do have depth a little bit at that position, so it’s a little competitive, and it needs to be. That’s a good thing.”
Competition in the spring will go a long way in the progression and development of this group. We all saw last season how big of an impact a strong presence on the defensive line can have. This team is going to need this young defensive line group to be solid day in and day out, so having good days on the practice field now will help out immensely.
”I think competition makes you better, and we need to improve at that position,” Pruitt added. “We’ve improved. We have a lot of guys trying to do it the right way. So the more opportunities they have to go out there and compete, they will continue to improve. And so far they have.”
Two players that will add to the competition and more than likely play big roles this year are Savion Williams and Darel Middleton. Both players are junior college linemen and should be plug-and-play options for the Vols this season, meaning they will be given a lot of playing time from day one on campus.
Williams and Middleton have already played at the collegiate level, both seeing time on the field for their respective junior college teams. Pruitt and his staff are hoping that these two can come right in and be heavy contributors for a defensive line that returns little in the way of experience.
Emmit Gooden is the only lineman on the Vols’ roster who played significant snaps last year. The former JUCO product played in all 12 games and totaled 33 tackles, seven tackles for loss, and a sack. Otherwise, though, Tennessee will be relying on a lot of upside and potential.
Rising junior Matthew Butler played in nine games last season, making 13 tackles and a tackle for loss. As a true freshman, John Mincey appeared in five games, totaling five tackles, a sack, and a tackle for loss. But that’s it in terms of returning experience at Tennessee. Aubrey Solomon appeared in 18 games for Michigan in two seasons, totaling 24 tackles and two tackles for loss. But it’s still unknown if Solomon will be eligible for the Vols this fall or not.
Fans will get a glimpse at what the defensive line could possibly look like for the Vols, minus the four players mentioned before, at the Orange and White game on April 13th.