The Tennessee defensive line unit came into spring practice looking to build more depth and change the outlook for the future. So, under new coach Rodney Garner, this group was also looking for consistency from their own coaches. It’s not hard to forget how last season went for the group, losing their position coach a few games into the season and then having Jeremy Pruitt “takeover” the coaching duties.
Lets not forget the problems that plagued this group last season, from injuries to dicey play from a defensive front that many thought could be a factor for Tennessee. Things played out in a different way, as they struggled to maintain any kind of success, even though they had a solid group on paper. As Matthew Butler and others were working to get into the backfield, consistency was continuing to be a problem. Players like Aubrey Solomon and Darel Middleton never seemed comfortable, while players like Kurot Garland and LaTrell Bumphus were grinding through their own struggles.
As Garner looks for depth, Tyler Baron and Bryson Eason have been practicing with the defensive line this spring. The pair will be used in multiple spots this season.
This group showed flashes at times, which makes you wonder if they can take the next step this season. If there was a coach out there that could light a fire within the group, it was Rodney Garner. The former Auburn coach has plenty of experience developing talent along the front, just look at his former players in the league. The Vols needed a spark, which Garner is trying to light.
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. Entering their second year within the program, Omari Thomas and Dominic Bailey will need to take the next step. Tennessee is also looking for JUCO transfer Byron Young to bring another level of physicality.
Speaking of Young, Rodney Garner had nothing but praise for the newcomer. The speed and aggressiveness that he has shown so far has turned heads in the coaching room according to people inside the program. If the Vols can get important snaps from Young, it will only help this group, which actually has a good amount of depth.
“(Bryon Young) has definitely continued to improve and get better. He takes coaching. He works on the little things that we point out in the film sessions. Right now, he is a guy that is trending upwards.”
So, what does Garner think of the defensive line that he has inherited, along with a few newcomers?
“They are a group that is eager. Obviously, they are taking coaching, and I think the guys are buying into it. It is a little bit different, especially schematically. Last year they were more near step. This year we are more attack and react. The guys are really buying into it and taking the coaching, trying to understand what we want, trying to play vertical and trying to play two yards on the other side of the line of scrimmage”.
There’s no question that this unit has had to adjust this spring to the offense they are facing everyday in practice, as they won’t face this type of speed on a weekly basis. It should no doubt help with their endurance and ability to play faster, though communication will be a key emphasis for Gardner.
“Obviously, it is going to pay dividends, teaching those guys how to stay poised, how to play with confidence with how they get their feet and eyes set, and they have to be able to execute and communicate. This is definitely going to help us going forward because in this league there are several teams that are doing pace in the hurry up, no huddle. It is definitely going to get us acclimated for the fall.”
The biggest area this group needs to settle in on is figuring out who will be the “monster”. As I’ve said many times in the past, Tennessee has lacked the dominant guy, the guy who you can count on to make a big stop or deliver the big hit on 3rd down. If you look around the country, other teams are littered with “monsters” and it pays off, especially in this conference. It’s Garner’s task to bring that out in some of them, because right now they’re still searching.
But on Tuesday, Garner felt like his group finally had a practice that they could build on, as they have one more day of work on the field before their final scrimmage of the spring.
“Actually today, I thought we took a step forward. I look forward to going up there and watching the film and seeing if that’s true. I really thought today was probably the best practice we had all spring.”
It’s the small things that Rodney Garner is trying to turn into big things. For Tennessee, they’re going to need big things from this defensive line group in 2021 if they plan on being competitive.