We get you ready for the start of spring practice for Tennessee’s football team with our position preview series. Up next is a look at the Vols’ defensive line.
Seniors: Matthew Butler (RS), Darel Middleton (RS), Aubrey Solomon (RS), LaTrell Bumphus (RS), Ja’Quain Blakely (RS)
Juniors: Kurott Garland (RS), Greg Emerson (RS)
Sophomores: Elijah Simmons (RS), Omari Thomas, Dominic Bailey, RJ Perry
Freshmen: Isaac Washington (early enrollee)
Departures: John Mincey (transfer portal), Savion Williams (transfer portal),
Deciding what’s what
Priority No. 1 for new defensive line coach Rodney Garner and defensive coordinator Tim Banks when it comes to Tennessee’s defensive line is figuring out what they’ve got. Banks has been open about not knowing exactly what base defense the Vols will run in the fall, just because of the simple fact that they’ll be multiple. He doesn’t want to pigeonhole himself into one particular base defense when he doesn’t have a grasp for what his personnel is.
That’s why this spring is so critical. Not just for the defensive line, but at every level of the defense. It feels a little bit different up front, however. At linebacker and in the secondary, there’s a pretty good feel for what each player at that position is going to play. That’s not the case along the d-line. Rather, there’s a bunch of guys who are built similarly as a result of not having distinct detailed positions along the front. Establishing who is going to stick at defensive tackle and who is going to play on the end is critical to determining what the base defense will be.
Veterans all around
Tennessee’s defensive line currently lacks play-making ability and established roles, but the one thing it does have is experience. And there’s something to be said for that in this conference. Seniors Matthew Butler, LaTrell Bumphus, Darel Middleton and Aubrey Solomon have all played significant snaps for the Vols. As have juniors Greg Emerson and Kurott Garland.
Garner needs to have a 2021 campaign that is similar to the 2018 campaign that former Tennessee defensive line coach Tracy Rocker had with his group of Shy Tuttle, Kyle Phillips, Alexis Johnson and Paul Bain. Rocker took that group of veterans and developed each into having the best season of their careers. It led to Tennessee’s defense playing stout at times and upsetting Auburn and Kentucky. Garner needs to squeeze as much as he can out of the current crop of veterans.
Who takes a step forward?
While Tennessee does need for its veterans to play the best football of its career in order for its defensive line unit to be effective, it also needs some fresh blood to enter the mix. Garner and Banks have some intriguing prospects to work with in that regard. Omari Thomas and Dominic Bailey are entering their second year within the program as former four-star prospects, though Thomas saw the field last season and Bailey didn’t. Thomas saw action in all 10 games as a reserve during his true freshman season and finished with 10 tackles and one tackle for loss.
Another intriguing name to keep an eye on is Elijah Simmons. He was just a three-star prospect coming out of high school, but was viewed under the previous staff as a young player who has quite a bit of upside. Simmons has played in 13 games and made two starts during his career. He, along with Thomas and Bailey should be considered the x-factors along the defensive line. If any of the three could live up to their potential, it would be huge for Tennessee’s defensive front.
Tennessee has one newcomer along the defensive line this spring. The sad thing is that he may not even be able to participate because of decisions off the football field. Isaac Washington, who signed with the Vols during the early signing period under Jeremy Pruitt, was recently arrested on drug charges following an incident in a dorm room. Washington has since been suspended indefinitely and his status for the spring is unknown.