We get you ready for the start of Tennessee’s 2019 fall camp by previewing the Vols’ roster position-by-position. Make sure to check out our look at Tennessee’s linebackers. Next up is our look at Tennessee’s defensive line.
Seniors: Emmit Gooden
Juniors: Savion Williams, Aubrey Solomon, Matthew Butler, Darel Middleton, LaTrell Bumphus, Ja’Quain Blakely (RS),
Sophomores: John Mincey
Freshmen: Elijah Simmons, Greg Emerson (RS), Kingston Harris (RS), Kurott Garland (RS)
The biggest question mark on the 2019 football team is without a doubt Jeremy Pruitt’s defensive line. Yes, it’s even more of a question mark than an offensive line that really struggled last season. At least along the O-line, there’s a general idea of how the rotation will come together.
On the defensive front, it’s a very different story.
Along the D-line, it’s purely a guessing game following the loss of four seniors – Kyle Phillips, Shy Tuttle, Alexis Johnson, and Paul Bain. Between the four, Tracy Rocker’s group must replace nine sacks from a 2018 defense that recorded 25. The four seniors also tallied 16.5 tackles for a loss.
It all starts and begins with Michigan transfer Aubrey Solomon. If the junior big man can receive a waiver from the NCAA to become immediately eligible, then the picture up front becomes a tad clearer.
With the Wolverines, Solomon totaled 24 tackles and 2.0 tackles for a loss in 18 games. He tallied 18 tackles while appearing in all 13 games as a true freshman in 2017.
Talent isn’t an issue with Solomon, who was the No. 2 player in the state of Georgia coming out of high school. The borderline five-star had offers from schools all over the country and participated in the 2017 U.S. Army All-American Bowl. Injuries slowed Solomon as a sophomore last year, and now he’s looking for a fresh start for the Vols as he moves closer to home.
Assuming Solomon is approved a waiver to become eligible for the season, he can be slotted into a starting spot – likely at one of the two defensive end roles.
At the other defensive end spot, it appears its junior Matthew Butler’s job to lose. As a sophomore, Butler played in nine games, finishing with 13 tackles for a loss. At 6-foot-4, he sat behind Phillips and Johnson last year, but now that they’ve moved on, Butler is in prime position to earn the other starting spot heading into fall camp.
Should Solomon not become immediately eligible, junior LaTrell Bumphus, redshirt-junior Ja’Quain Blakely, sophomore John Mincey, and JUCO signee Darel Middleton are possible names to earn the other starting position opposite of Butler.
Mincey, a sophomore out of Georgia, flashed potential as a true freshman last season. At 6-foot-3, 271 pounds, Mincey appeared in five games, tallying five tackles and one sack. He was well on his way to a productive freshman season before seriously injuring his elbow against Florida, but he figures to be a key piece of this year’s group.
Middleton, the junior college signee, is the most intriguing piece at defensive end. A Knoxville native, Middleton spent the previous two seasons at East Mississippi Community College after playing locally at Powell and Oak Ridge High School.
The Tennessean performed his way to a top-50 JUCO prospect after recording 29 tackles and 7.0 tackles for a loss last season. Middleton was a key member of an EMCC defense that led NJCAA in fewest points allowed. At 6-foot-7, 311 pounds, Middleton could come in and earn a starting spot at defensive end.
Blakely enters his fourth season in the program, but it hasn’t all been spent along the defensive line. He’s bounced around the roster, spending time at fullback, tight end, linebacker, and now defensive end. Blakely’s been unable to stick to one position, which has also been the case for Bumphus.
The 6-foot-3 junior out of Savannah, Tennessee has moved around between the defensive line and tight end, but he appears to be set to remain along the D-line with Blakely. The pair have combined for just three career tackles.
Redshirt-freshmen Kingston Harris is another option at defensive end. At 6-foot-3, 306 pounds, Harris brings much-needed size to the position. Last year, Harris appeared in two games against West Virginia and ETSU before redshirting.
While defensive end appears to be a huge question mark, defensive tackle appears to be a clearer picture – though inexperience could be an issue early on.
The first person to trot out as the starter on Aug. 31 against Georgia State will likely be Emmit Gooden, though he could also play defensive end. Talent has never been an issue for the Tennessee native, but consistency has been, and that dates back to his days in junior college.
Last year, Gooden played in all 12 games during his first season with UT, making one start. He finished the season with 33 tackles and 7.0 tackles for a loss, which was the third-highest on the team. He showed promise last season, but the question heading into his senior campaign will be whether he can become a prominent starter within the SEC.
If he can’t, Savion Williams is the likely tackle to take over the starting position, if he doesn’t win the job in camp to begin with.
Williams arrives in Knoxville as the No. 1 JUCO defensive tackle in the country. He’s powerful and quick off the ball, mauling offensive linemen at the point of attack. Last year, Williams helped lead Lackawanna Community College to an 11-0 record and he anchored a defense that allowed just 12.1 points per game.
Regardless of who the starter is, Gooden and Williams should prove to form one of the better tackle tandems in the conference.
Behind the two big names sit Greg Emerson, Kingston Harris, and Elijah Simmons.
Simmons arrives on campus with a ton of hype behind his name following viral videos of him dunking at 340 pounds and his menacing recruiting profile pictures. Oh, and there was the time where JJ Watt asked the Texans if they could draft Simmons after the Nashville native stood on stage at the NFL Draft.
Word on the street is that Simmons may already be the strongest man on the roster, and because of that, could see early playing time.
Emerson arrived on campus as a highly-touted recruit last offseason, but following a nasty ankle injury his senior year of high school, redshirted. Harris also redshirted last season as mentioned before.
Solomon, Gooden and Butler have the potential to be a strong starting unit. As does Solomon, Gooden, and Williams if Pruitt and Rocker decide to play the former JUCO products at the same time.
But even if the starting lineup proves to be a strength of the defense, questions still remain about the group’s depth. There are intriguing names, but a handful need to step up and prove their worth if Tennessee wants to overachieve in 2019.