No question starters Anthony Bryant and Ahmad Childress are very good (potentially excellent). But effective D-Line play depends on developing a playing rotation. Jeremy Clark explained, "We've got to play; we really don't have a choice. Me and Kyle and the other young guys, we'll all have to play next year. We need to get as many reps as we can this spring and stay in the weight room this summer. We've got to get ourselves ready for next year."
So far Wyatt likes what he's seen from the two youngsters. "They're a little undersized at this time," he pointed out, "and they need to get a little stronger. But as far as learning, Kyle and Jeremy are doing a good job picking our schemes up."
In order to hold their own against double- and even triple-teams, effective defensive tackles usually start at around 285 pounds--and go up from there. Clark has added 10 pounds of muscle since arriving on campus. "I'm not even close to the same player I was a year ago," he said. "I'm a lot stronger, and I've gotten a little bigger. My mindset for the game is a lot different. I know a lot more as far as situations go. I'm more mature than I was last year."
Kyle Tatum started spring drills at 283 pounds, also right at 10 pounds heavier than when he reported. But adding the right kind of weight is much more difficult than fans think. "I'm not sure how big I can get," he said. "A lot of people tell me I can hold 300 pounds and still be slender. I've dropped back to under 280, so I've lost a little weight during spring. But I'll get it back up in the summer time."
Heading into spring practice, both young linemen felt they had something to prove. Clark explained, "I heard the talk, with people being concerned about the depth on the defensive line. Since we've gotten out here we've taken a lot of reps this spring. That's helped both of us get ready for next season."
Tatum agreed, "I think we've made extremely large strides. We're not quite where we need to be. Some people might think we are, but I know that as a young player I'm not there yet.
"I'm trying to be a student of the game. Technique-wise I know I need to get better. From not playing defensive tackle before, I've definitely made long strides. I'm not completely satisfied, but maybe after the A-Day game I will be."
Having played mainly defensive end in high school, both Clark and Tatum are having to adjust to working on the inside. As their position coach explained, it takes a man to play defensive tackle. The action is fast and furious on the inside, with blockers coming at you from all angles.
Wyatt talked about the transition. "I think them actually getting in there and seeing it first hand was the best thing they can do. I can talk about it all I want, but until they experience it…
"I can say what I want, but since Kyle and Jeremy have been inside having to go against Justin Smiley and some of those other (offensive linemen), now they understand what it takes to play inside. They know they have a lot of work to do."
Clark said, "For awhile we weren't positive what position me or Kyle would play, especially Kyle. He was going to be a defensive end. I sort of had a feeling that I was going to end up playing inside."
"You've got to be a man to play inside," Tatum added. "You've got to be stronger and have better hand placement. You've got to play with the proper pad level, playing low inside. You're battling double teams. It's a little tougher inside. You don't have as much freedom."
Playing behind Childress and Bryant has helped the two redshirt freshmen. Clark explained, "When the young guys come to the sideline, Bear (Anthony Bryant) and Ahmad tell us what we need to do; how we're doing; and what we need to do to correct our mistakes. That's really helped us progress this spring."
"An older guy knows more about the game on the college level," Clark continued. "He's used to what the coaches expect and the game tempo, which Kyle and I haven't experienced yet. They tell us about it, but the only way we can get that is by going in and doing it. That's the only way you get experience."
Of course the two have another mental adjustment to make this year. It's been a long time since either Clark or Tatum was second string at anything. "It's different," Tatum admitted. "I'm used to always being on the field, but those guys are excellent athletes. I've had the chance to watch Anthony and Ahmad last year and throughout spring training. I watch their steps and their techniques, which is helpful. They're dominant guys, and that's what we need.
"Jeremy and I are going to follow right behind them and get the job done also."
With two veterans ahead of them on the depth chart, there is no pressure on Clark and Tatum to start right away. But Wyatt says they'd better be ready. "Playing with no pressure is good, but they're just a snap away from being the guy. They've got to take that attitude. Practice like they are going to be the starters. That's the way I ask them to approach it. One snap and they could be the guy to start."
As redshirt freshmen Clark and Tatum know they've got a lot of work still ahead of them. But if attitude counts for anything the two have a chance to be all-stars. "They're both very enthusiastic guys," Wyatt pointed out. "They want to be good, which is half the battle.
"If they keep that type attitude, I think they'll be just fine for us."
Ready or not, their baptism by fire will arrive next fall.
"I'm definitely looking forward to playing in the SEC," Tatum said. "I always love a challenge. It's going to be great stepping out on that field, knowing there's a man that wants to run over you and beat you--and you want to beat him. It's all about a challenge, doing the small things to make yourself a winner. I'm looking forward to it."