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2020 Spring Position Preview: Defensive Line

Photo by Nathanael Rutherford/RTI

We get you ready for the start of spring practice for Tennessee’s football team with our position preview series. Our most recent piece looked at Tennessee’s linebackers. Up next is a look at the Vols’ defensive line.

Seniors: Ja’Quain Blakely (RS), LaTrell Bumphus, Matthew Butler, Emmit Gooden (RS), Darel Middleton, Aubrey Solomon, Savion Williams

Juniors: John Mincey

Sophomores: Greg Emerson (RS), Kurott Garland (RS), Kingston Harris (RS)

Freshmen: Dominic Bailey, Elijah Simmons (RS)

Tennessee’s most experienced and deepest group this season will be their defensive line. The Vols return all of their starters and major contributors from last season, and the younger linemen on the roster have all had another year of time to learn the defense and bulk up (or trim down) in the weight room.

This unit did take a bit of a hit over this weekend, however. Rising senior Darel Middleton, who appeared in all 13 games and started six contests last season for the Vols, was arrested early Saturday morning on charges of domestic assault and public intoxication. Middleton’s punishment has not been announced by Jeremy Pruitt or Tennessee at this time.

Aside from Middleton’s unknown status, the Vols feature a veteran group of linemen who figure to improve off a somewhat surprisingly good 2019 campaign.

It took Tennessee’s defensive line a few weeks to settle in and start being truly productive, but this group was the most inexperienced unit on the team a year ago. The Vols’ defensive line went from being a big weakness to putting together some productive play as the season wore on.

Matthew Butler was arguably the Vols’ most productive defensive lineman during the 2019 season, appearing in all 13 games and making four starts. He led all UT defensive linemen with 45 tackles and also had 2.5 sacks and three tackles for loss. Michigan transfer Aubrey Solomon started nine games and played in 12, and despite some injury issues, managed to put together a competent debut campaign with the Vols, totaling 28 tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks, and a fumble recovery. Greg Emerson rounded out the group with nine starts at nose tackle in 13 games, managing 30 tackles, four tackles for loss, and two sacks.

LaTrell Bumphus had a breakout junior season in 2019, starting six games and playing in 11 contests for his first major action as a Vol. Bumphus finally found a home at defensive end after moving around to tight end before last season. He managed 23 tackles, six tackles for loss, two sacks, and a fumble recovery.

Kurott Garland was the other main rotational contributor, playing in 13 games and making four starts while totaling 19 tackles and two tackles for loss.

Regardless of Darel Middleton’s status, those five linemen figure to be part of the main group along the defensive line once again in 2020. But there will be an added wrinkle of competition this year.

Emmit Gooden sustained a season-ending injury in fall camp before the 2019 season, dealing a blow to the Vols’ already inexperienced group. Gooden was the most experienced lineman on UT’s roster before the start of the 2019 campaign, and he was penciled in as a starter.

Now that Gooden has missed an entire season, can he get back to form?

Pruitt has not updated Gooden’s status and has not said if the redshirt senior will be a full participant in spring practices or not. But if Gooden can go, he’ll add another talented body to a group that already has a lot of veteran leadership and depth.

Aside from Emerson and Garland, Tennessee’s defensive line will likely feature a lot of upperclassmen in 2020. But the younger linemen will be interesting to watch this spring, too.

Now that he’s had a year to acclimate himself to college and go through the strength and conditioning program, how much of an impact can Elijah Simmons make? Can he challenge for the starting nose tackle spot or at least figure into the rotation? Can Dominic Bailey come in as an early enrollee and make some noise? Can John Mincey, who Tennessee stole from South Carolina in Pruitt’s first recruiting class in 2018, become more of a factor? What about Kingston Harris? Will he stay on the defensive line or move to offense?

There are two veterans who have questions to answer this spring, too. Can Ja’Quain Blakely maintain a spot in the rotation, or will he be leapfrogged by a younger lineman? Will Savion Williams bounce back from a disappointing debut season with the Vols and become a legit competitor for playing time?

While the Vols’ defensive line ended up being productive last season and featured solid performances from several linemen, UT didn’t have a true star along the line. Tennessee didn’t have a lineman who offenses had to scheme around and figure out how they were going to block them. Could Tennessee develop such a star lineman in the spring and summer this year? Or will this be another group effort that relies heavily on rotating players in and out?

Tennessee’s defensive line will get even more added competition after the spring when Omari Thomas and Reginald Perry join the roster from the 2020 class. There’s a chance Perry moves to offense, but he’s expected to start out on the defensive line at first.

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