Tennessee defensive line coach Tracy Rocker has a tall task ahead of him for the 2019 season. He’s responsible for coaching up a unit that lost all three starters from last season and was dealt a big blow a little over a week ago when projected starter Emmit Gooden suffered a season-ending ACL tear in fall camp.
Not only that, but Rocker and his unit has been dealing with the ongoing drama of whether or not Michigan transfer Aubrey Solomon will be eligible for this upcoming season.
No other unit has as many question marks as Rocker’s, but that’s not getting to him.
Rocker was one of three assistant coaches to meet with the media on Thursday, and he seemed as laid back and jovial as ever with the gathered media. Rocker discussed his unit’s performance so far in fall camp and talked about the difference between coaching last year’s veteran group compared to his year’s more inexperienced unit. While inconsistency has been the biggest issue overall, there have been a couple linemen who have caught his attention thus far.
On the pass rushing front, junior defensive end LaTrell Bumphus has caught Rocker’s eye the most.
“The guy that has probably stood out, that we think has the potential is (Latrell) Bumphus,” Rocker said on Thursday. “Bumphus has really improved. He’s improved in the run and pass and getting better as a football player.”
When Bumphus signed on with the Vols in the 2017 recruiting class, he was a borderline four-star prospect who looked to make his mark on offense for Tennessee. The 6-foot-3, 258-pound prospect could play either tight end or defensive end, but he saw more time at tight end in his first two years at Tennessee. It wasn’t until after the 2018 season that he was moved full time to the defensive line, and he’s finally settling in there according to Rocker.
Now at 6-foot-3, 273 pounds, he more fits the mold of what Rocker and head coach Jeremy Pruitt want in a defensive end in UT’s 3-4 defensive scheme.
“One, his body has changed. Bumpus was a tight end, and he’s kinda been all over this team,” Rocker said of the junior lineman. “For now, he’s at the defensive line. He’s playing defensive end, and it’s been really good to have him there, and he seems to enjoy it. He enjoys practice. He enjoys getting better. So that’s been a plus for me.
“He’s embraced it. I love him in the room. He’s a great personality, does well in school, and he’s caught on. He wants to be good, so that’s really good.”
Bumphus has appeared in 22 total games for the Vols in his two seasons, but he only has one tackle (a tackle for loss) to his credit on the statistical front. Most of Bumphus’ playing time has come on special teams.
But with Tennessee looking for new faces to contribute on the defensive line in 2019, the junior from Savannah, TN has taken advantage of the opportunity thus far. If he continues to show out in practice, there’s a good chance Vol fans will finally see what the former four-star can do during the season.
Bumphus isn’t the only lineman with minimal experience who has stood out to Rocker, though.
Greg Emerson, another former four-star who is from inside Tennessee’s own state borders, has caught Rocker’s attention in fall camp. Emerson suffered a bad leg injury prior to his senior season in 2017 and missed his entire final year of high school. Emerson still wasn’t fully recovered when he joined the Vols as part of their 2018 class, and he appeared in only one game last season and used last year as a redshirt season.
Emerson switched back and forth between defensive and offensive line in his first year at UT, but now he’s found his home on the defensive line. And according to Rocker, he’s doing well as Tennessee’s nose tackle as long as he can figure out how to play consistently.
“Greg is improved. We’re getting more effort out of Greg,” Rocker said of Emerson. “The deal is: One day is a really good day, but we need back-to-back days.
“The biggest thing Greg has done well is playing the nose as a run stopper. There’s others that are making progress, but Greg has stood out well.”
At 6-foot-3, 309 pounds, Emerson is one of the biggest bodies in UT’s defensive line unit. Only true freshman Elijah Simmons (340 pounds) and JUCO transfer Darel Middleton (311 pounds) weigh more than Emerson, and only Savion Williams (6-foot-4), Middleton (6-foot-7), Matthew Butler (6-foot-4), and Aubrey Solomon (6-foot-5) are noticeably taller than him.
For Emerson, his production in 2019 will be all about his consistency and his understanding of Tennessee’s defensive playbook and personnel. He has the physical skill, and he has the “want to” as well.
Tennessee needs for some new names to emerge along the defensive line in 2019 in order to have success, and there appears to be at least two linemen who have a chance of making their names known this fall if they keep up their work.