KNOXVILLE (WATE) – It’s no secret Tennessee is going through a variety of offensive changes this season. But the Vols have plenty of new names to learn at defense. Bob Shoop enters his second season on Rocky Top with his 4-2-5 defense (four defensive lineman, two linebackers, and five in the secondary). Up front, where Derek Barnett is out, new faces need to step up.
The trio of Barnett, Corey Vereen and LaTroy Lewis gave Tennessee 22.5 sacks last season. This year, the Vols will turn to Jonathan Kongbo, Darrell Taylor and Kyle Phillips to fill the edge rushing presence.
On the interior, you’re getting consistency with Kendal Vickers. Described by Shoop as the grandfather of the unit, Vickers has started all 26 games for Tennessee over the past two seasons. He’s joined by Kahlil McKenzie Jr. (whose season was cut short by a pectoral muscle tear against Alabama) as the other projected starter. Shy Tuttle is working his way back from a torn ACL, and Shoop cited Quay Picou as a player whose grown more than anyone in the program this offseason.
“The lesson I learned, personally is you can never have enough guys,” Shoop said. “You just never know. It’s a physical league, and there’s so much attrition, that games twelve and thirteen are every bit as important obviously and games one and two.”
The linebacking corps proved to be a weakness last season, but the captain of Tennessee’s defense resides in the middle. A high ankle sprain forced Darrin Kirkland Jr. to miss five games last year, but when he’s healthy, he’s among the team’s top playmakers. Cortez McDowell is in his final year of eligibility, Quarte Sapp and Austin Smith (transitioning back to linebacker from defensive end) are both back after injuries forced them to miss virtually all of 2016. Colton Jumper, Daniel Bituli, Dillon Bates and Elliott Berry add to the depth of the unit.
Turning to the secondary, Todd Kelly Jr. will serve as the defacto leader of the back end. Kelly Jr. started 11 games in the fall and led the team with 71 tackles. He’s joined by Micah Abernathy, whose two picks were tied for the team lead and three fumble recoveries led Tennessee. Nigel Warrior and Evan Berry fill out the top four of the safety room.
The cornerbacks room adding Shaq Wiggins in May. The graduate transfer from Louisville has one year of football eligibility left, and is expected to start immediately. Emmanuel Moseley is the veteran of the group, but has battled inconsistency on the field. Justin Martin has the length and talent to stand out, and was cited as another player who matured and improved rapidly over the spring and summer. First year defensive backs coach Charlton Warren will rely on Rashaan Gaulden and Marquill Osborne as well.
Each position has questions, but the talent is there. It can’t get much worse from last season’s late year collapse. If the defense can stay healthy and limit the big plays that haunted the Vols in 2016, Shoop should have them ready.