Who Starts on the Defensive Line?
If you think Tennessee’s offensive line has a lot of unanswered questions before the start of fall camp, wait till you see the defensive line.
The Vols don’t return any full-time starters from their defensive line unit from last season, and they only return one player with any significant collegiate playing time. Emmit Gooden, a former JUCO product and four-star prospect, played in all 12 games last season and made one start at the end of the season. He put together a solid debut campaign with the Vols and had a good close to his year, finishing with 33 tackles, seven tackles for loss, and a sack.
But other than Gooden, the Vols don’t return much in the way of production on the defensive line.
Aside from Gooden, Tennessee returns a grand total of 25 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and a sack among the rest of their defensive linemen who were on the roster last season. And the bulk of that production comes from junior lineman Matthew Butler (17 tackles, 1.5 TFLs).
One of the biggest questions surrounding the defensive line is the status of Aubrey Solomon. As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, there’s hope that Solomon’s status will be known before the start of fall camp. But if it isn’t, then that’s a storyline that could drag on into who knows when.
If Solomon gains immediate eligibility, that should help shore up some of UT’s defensive line problems. Solomon was a former five-star prospect who flashed potential as a true freshman at Michigan before suffering some nagging injuries as a sophomore in 2018.
If Solomon doesn’t get his waiver approved for immediate eligibility, then that could be very bad news for a Tennessee D-line thin on bodies and experience.
Gooden likely has a starting spot, and Solomon probably gets one if he’s eligible as well. Butler flashed enough in the spring to make him a frontrunner for significant playing time, and UT’s coaching staff really likes John Mincey and Kingston Harris.
Incoming JUCO defensive lineman Savion Williams will compete for playing time, and he brings a relentless motor and competitive attitude to UT’s defensive line group. He could be in line for a starting role immediately. Even if he doesn’t, he should figure in to the two-deep pretty prominently. Fellow JUCO lineman Darel Middleton certainly looks the part at 6-foot-7, 311 pounds, but his effort and consistency will be the biggest focus.
If Greg Emerson, LaTrell Bumphus, or Ja’Quain Blakely can bring anything to the table in 2019, that would go a long way to answering some questions as well. And even though Elijah Simmons should likely redshirt this season, he’s already being touted as one of the strongest players on UT’s roster even as a true freshman. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility he surprises and gets a spot in the rotation at nose tackle.
Simply put, there’s not a lot of known commodities along Tennessee’s defensive line. They need players to step up in a big way this fall.