There’s no point in sugarcoating Tennessee’s past and present situation along the defensive line. Last season, the unit was porous, playing a huge role in allowing Texas A&M, Alabama, Kentucky, and Missouri to rush for a combined 1,625 yards.
For context, Alabama only allowed 824 rushing yards in 15 games!
It was a dumpster fire and the marquee reason why the Vols limped down the stretch. Even in games they didn’t get completely roasted in, they allowed plays like this:
For the Vol fans who still lose sleep at night over the loss to South Carolina, this was a momentum-shifting play early on in the game.
On the bright side, Brady Hoke was brought in to fix the problems, or at least for the time being, put a Band-Aid on the wound, because the picture for Tennessee’s 2017 defensive line is fairly bleak and it’s highly unlikely any mixture of magic and pixie dust can erase all the woes.
It all begins with the departures of Derek Barnett and Corey Vereen, who were the only glimmers of hope last season for the Vols along the defensive front. Barnett broke Reggie White’s school sack record, while Vereen was a nice complementary piece and attracted enough attention to provide Barnett with some breathing room.
But even with Barnett and Vereen, Tennessee struggled last season at controlling the edges.
Do we now expect Kyle Phillips to solve that problem? After a dud 2016 campaign, will Jonathan Kongbo see more playing time and leave his fingerprint on games? Like many areas on the Vols’ roster, both are unknowns.
But where Tennessee really struggled last season was the interior, which was decimated by injuries. Both Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie suffered season-ending injuries, while Danny O’Brien was kicked off the team after suffering an injury against Texas A&M. Tuttle and McKenzie return, but the status of their health isn’t clear.
If Tuttle is healthy, he’ll consistently make impact plays like this:
But plays akin to that were few and far between. In that same game, Roll Tide rolled off plays like this:
According to Football Outsiders, the Vols’ defensive line ranked 79th out of 128 teams in adjusted line yards, a stat that essentially provides responsibility to yards on the ground allowed by a defensive line.
In the SEC, a league dominated by physical and versatile backfields, that’s a problem. It becomes even more of a problem when both of your high-profile defensive tackles can’t stay on the field, and even when they find themselves playing, it’s obvious their ability to pursue the ball has eroded due to injuries.
So, how does Tennessee fix this conundrum?
They probably won’t, so they’ll have to lean on the supporting cast – the linebackers and defensive backs.
It’s no secret defensive coordinator Bob Shoops loves to blitz. With Barnett – a one-man pressuring machine – gone, Shoops will have to blitz at an even higher rate and force quarterbacks to make quicker decisions. In the running game, the linebackers have to locate the gaps early and take control of that territory. On the back end, the defensive backs must play like the experienced group that they are. With pressure likely coming at a premium when Shoops doesn’t send all the troops, the secondary will have to adjust to covering for long stretches of time.
Heading into 2017, Vol fans shouldn’t stress over their quarterback and head coach too much. It should be the defensive line. If Tennessee can’t build a wall and prevent running backs from engaging the second level or pressure the quarterback, we’ll see more Missouri-esque performances. We’ll also see more Vanderbilt-esque performances, where the Vols were so hellbent on stopping the run (which they didn’t do effectively in that game) that they traded it off for a Kyle Shurmur roasting (21-of-34, 416 yards, 2 TD).
Tennessee fans aren’t accustomed to getting roasted by Vanderbilt quarterbacks, but if the defensive line continues to play at such a shocking low level, it might be a permanent reality in 2017.