Position analysis: D-line

Continuing its position-by-position analysis of the 2014 Football Vols, InsideTennessee takes an in-depth look at the defensive line:

Competing in college football’s heavyweight division – the Southeastern Conference – is challenging, especially when your defensive line features a stable of cruiserweights. But that’s the task facing Tennessee’s front four this fall.

The four projected starters in the 2014 defensive front – Curt Maggitt (6-feet-3, 244 pounds), Jordan Williams (6-feet-5, 272), Owen Williams (6-feet-2, 289) and Corey Vereen (6-feet-2, 248) weigh a combined 1,053 pounds.

That’s 127 pounds more than the 2012 starting D-line, which sounds impressive until you consider this: The base defense for the 2012 Vols was a three-man front of Corey Miller (6-feet-3, 257), Daniel McCullers (6-feet-6, 377) and Daniel Hood (6-feet-4, 292). So, on a man-per-man basis, the 2014 line weighs 263.2 pounds per player, down 45 pounds per man from the 308.7-pound average of 2012.

Moreover, Tennessee’s 2014 second-team line projects to be just as small as the first-team front. Danny O’Brien (6-feet-2, 281), Dimarya Mixon (6-feet-3, 266), LaTroy Lewis (6-feet-4, 255) and Jaylen Miller (6-feet-2, 250) weigh a combined 1,052 pounds – one pound less than the projected starters. The No. 2 line gets even lighter if mid-term freshman Jakob Johnson (6-feet-4, 230) works his way into the mix.

The Vol front four could be a little heavier if injury-plagued junior tackle Trevarris Saulsberry (6-feet-4, 297) can stay healthy long enough to crack the rotation. Freshman linemen generally need a year of college weight training to compete in the SEC but perhaps one of the newcomers can buck that trend. Michael Sawyers (6-feet-3, 300) and Jashon Robertson (6-feet-3, 306) could add some beef at tackle, as could Derek Barnett (6-feet-3, 284) at end. Heralded Dewayne Hendrix has the talent to contribute at end but he’s virtually the same size (6-feet-3, 252) as the veterans he’ll be battling. The other end signee, Joe Henderson (6-feet-3, 222) may need to add 25 pounds before he can contribute.

So, can Tennessee’s cruiserweight D-line go toe-to-toe with the heavyweight offensive lines it will be facing in SEC warfare this fall? Maybe. Sometimes an abundance of quickness can overcome a shortage of heft. Longtime UT defensive coordinator John Chavis fashioned quality Vol defenses in the 1990s and 2000s by growing safeties into linebackers, linebackers into ends and ends into tackles. Tennessee is doing exactly the same thing in 2014. Ends Maggitt and Johnson are converted linebackers. Tackles Jordan Williams and Mixon are transplanted ends.

D-line coach Steve Stripling believes his troops can offset the lack of heft with hustle and heart.

“If we’re undersized, then we’re going to play with a lot of quickness and a lot of movement,” he told IT. “Last year we were kind of sitting in there and kind of holding point. That’s really not our style. If you look back at Coach (Butch) Jones’ philosophy over the years it’s always been an aggressive, attacking defense. We really weren’t that last year but we’re moving on to that style this year.”

Last fall’s front four was anchored by McCullers. Like his “Shade Tree” nickname, he basically was rooted in one place. The 2014 tackles are much more mobile … one of them in particular.

"Owen Williams catches your eye because he's a little bit more mature and he's really physical, extremely strong and very quick,” Stripling said. “He fits our style of play."

Williams, a JUCO transfer who turns 23 in September, has the physical and emotional maturity of a fifth-year senior. He’s new to major-college football in general and Tennessee’s scheme in particular, however, so he has an awful lot left to learn.

"He's a tremendous young man, great attitude,” Stripling said. “He’s also shown that he doesn't know what it takes at this level. That's part of developing the identity of the defense, but I'm really pleased and excited about Owen Williams.”

The X Factor in Tennessee’s front four could be Mixon. He signed with Nebraska in 2013 but never enrolled, sitting out last season. He signed with Tennessee last winter, then showed in spring practice that he could make immediate impact in 2014.

“I really like him,” Stripling said. “You can tell he was out of football for a year but he is like a wild horse. He is very willing. He is very mentally tough. So he's got a lot of great qualities. He doesn't know very much as far as technique goes but I really like Mixon."

One area in which Tennessee’s 2014 front four must significantly improve is rushing the passer. The Vols were awful last fall, managing just 18 sacks. That was a major reason Big Orange opponents completed 56.5 percent of their passes in 2013, averaged 211.1 passing yards per game and registered 18 passing touchdowns. The switch of Maggitt and Jakob Johnson from linebacker to end should give the pass rush a lift.

"I think I see a lot of ability to make more plays,” defensive coordinator John Jancek said. “We've got to move those guys around, keeping people on their toes as far as them being a little bit lighter but able to move better."

Lacking heft and strength, Tennessee’s front four may need to rely heavily in 2014 on smoke and mirrors.

Have a look at the defenders working out on Haslam Field earlier this spring by clicking on the InsideTennessee video below:

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