2020 Preseason Position Preview: Defensive Line

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    Photo by Nathanael Rutherford/RTI

    Right now, it’s uncertain whether or not the 2020 football season will be played as planned. But we’re moving ahead and providing our position preview series ahead of the start of Tennessee’s fall camp as if things will proceed as normal. After taking a look at the linebacker position, we take a look at the Vols’ defensive line next. 

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

    Juniors: John Mincey

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

    Freshmen: Elijah Simmons (RS), Omari Thomas, Dominic Bailey, R.J. Perry

    Out with the Old, in with the New

    Tennessee’s defensive staff consists of three new assistant coaches. In addition to moving Brian Niedermeyer to inside linebackers coach and hiring Shelton Felton from Akron to be the new outside linebackers coach, Jeremy Pruitt replaced the departed Tracy Rocker with Jimmy Brumbaugh along the defensive line. Rocker is now the defensive line coach at South Carolina.

    Brumbaugh arrives from Colorado, where he served as the defensive line coach in 2019. In the years prior, he served in the same position at Maryland in 2017 and 2018 and at Kentucky from 2013-16. Before his stop in Lexington, Brumbaugh served in various roles at Jacksonville State, Tennessee-Chattanooga, LSU, Louisiana Tech, Syracuse, and East Mississippi State Community College.

    The Keystone Heights, Florida native played along the defensive line at Auburn from 1995-99. He started 44 of his 48 career games, recording 291 tackles and 15 sacks. Brumbaugh was named to the SEC All-Freshman team in 1995, earned second-team All-SEC honors as a sophomore in 1996, and earned first-team All-SEC accolades as a junior in 1997.

    Replacing Emmit Gooden…kind of

    It was a relatively quiet offseason for Tennessee’s defensive line aside from Brumbaugh taking over for Rocker. That is until July 16th, when Pruitt dismissed senior defensive tackle Emmit Gooden from the team after the redshirt senior was arrested on felony domestic assault charges. Gooden was making his way back from a torn ACL that cost him the 2019 season.

    The Gooden dismissal can be looked at in two ways simultaneously. On one hand, it’s a big loss for Tennessee’s defensive front. Gooden was expected to start inside at defensive tackle and was arguably the most talented defensive lineman out of Brumbaugh’s group. On the other hand, the Vols already know what life is like without Gooden in the mix. Last year’s group came together just fine after the slow start, and there are plenty of options capable of stepping up to the plate.

    Kurott Garland and Greg Emerson are the pair of tackles with a great opportunity to step up and fill Gooden’s shoes. While typically Pruitt’s defensive front in a base 3-4 consists of a defensive end, a nose tackle, and a defensive tackle, Garland and Emerson are the pure tackles on the roster who have flashed in the past.

    Garland started four games at nose tackle last season during his redshirt freshman season, totaling 19 tackles and two tackles for loss. He started and had a career-best five tackles in the Gator Bowl against Indiana. Emerson also flashed during his redshirt freshman season. The Jackson, Tennessee native started nine games at nose and tallied 30 tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks, and two pass breakups.

    If not Garland or Emerson, then redshirt freshman Elijah Simmons could potentially slide in at nose and make an impact. At least Tennessee coaches are hoping so. Simmons redshirted last season to fine-tune his body despite being one of the strongest players on the team the moment he stepped foot on campus. The redshirt sophomore still needs to continue to develop both in the weight room and on the field, but his natural strength gives him ability to potentially have an impact this season at 6-foot-2, 340 lbs.

    Kingston Harris, another potential option at tackle, appeared in just two games last season.

    Committee Approach 

    As is the case at defensive tackle, the entire defensive line will work as a committee. The likelihood of one guy stepping up and dominating is unlikely, but that doesn’t mean the group will struggle. Behind six senior defensive lineman, Tennessee has multiple D-lineman who can step up and produce each game.

    Aubrey Solomon is the lock out of the bunch to be one of the three starters entering his second season with the program. After transferring from Michigan last offseason, Solomon started nine games for the Vols in 2019. The physical defensive lineman finished with 28 tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks, one hurry, and one recovered fumble.

    Who starts at the third and final spot along the defensive line opposite of Solomon is an interesting question. Tennessee has options, and Matthew Butler may be the favorite after starting four games last year and leading all defensive lineman in tackles with 47.

    LaTrell Bumphus, Darel Middleton, Ja’Quain Blakely, and John Mincey will all push Butler for that starting position. But even if they don’t win a starting job, they’ll all receive significant reps, especially Bumphus and Middleton. Bumphus, a former tight end, brings experience up front having played in 33 games with seven starts. He has 24 tackles, seven tackles for loss, two sacks, and one forced fumble on his resume. Middleton started six games in his first season with the Vols after signing out of junior college. He finished with 28 tackles, two tackles for loss, and one sack to go along with a forced fumble and a blocked kick.

    Blakely and Mincey are more likely to be important depth pieces for the Vols behind Bumphus and Middleton. Blakely made a big play at the goal line against Kentucky to secure a win while appearing in all 13 games last year as a key reserve lineman. Mincey was also a reserve lineman for the Vols last year. He made nine appearances and finished with five tackles, including one for a loss.

    Another senior defensive lineman to keep an eye on is Savion Williams. The junior college signee struggled to find his footing in his first season on Rocky Top last year. Williams appeared in seven games and made seven tackles last season. He never solidified a spot in the rotation, but he arrived at Tennessee with quite a bit of hype after a strong junior college career. Coaches and fans are hoping the Williams that terrorized quarterbacks in JUCO shows up this season for the Vols.

    Newcomers to Watch

    Garland, Emerson, and Simmons are young, promising prospects for the Vols at the tackle position. Pruitt signed two other defensive tackles this past recruiting cycle who arrive on campus with the hopes of stealing snaps from the aforementioned trio.

    Omari Thomas could have gone just about anywhere in the country, but he decided to remain in-state and play for the Vols. Fellow four-star Dominic Bailey from Baltimore, Maryland also chose the Vols over a host of other offers. Both have the size and athletic ability to play right away if the opportunity presents itself.

    Pruitt also signed Reginald Perry, an intriguing defensive line prospect from the state of Alabama. A redshirt is likely in the future for Perry, though.

    2020 Preseason Position Preview: Linebackers

    2020 Preseason Position Preview: Defensive Backs

    2020 Preseason Position Preview: Specialists

    Ben McKee
    Ben McKee is a graduate from the University of Tennessee and has a degree in Journalism and Electronic Media. He grew up an Army brat and lived in Alabama for a bit, but he bleeds orange. He covers Tennessee football, basketball, baseball, and the Lady Vols for RTI, and he's also a co-host on the RTI Live Show and RTI Podcast. You can also hear Ben on the morning sports radio show "The Swain Event." He's the producer and co-host along with former Vol wide receiver Jayson Swain.