“I wasn’t real sure how we were going to do in the spring,” he said with a shrug. “But, with a lot of young guys coming in – all of us playing with effort, energy and speed – it’s good.”
The “young guys” are the key. Tennessee can count on solid play from Williams and redshirt sophomore Danny O’Brien at tackle, plus sophomore Corey Vereen and redshirt junior Curt Maggitt at end. Depth? Well, that’s another matter.
Junior-college transfer Owen Williams is long on strength and explosiveness but short on stamina, while freshmen Dimarya Mixon and Michael Sawyers are long on potential but short on maturity. Still, they are the top three reserves at tackle.
“Barnett and Dewayne Hendrix have jumped out,” D-line coach Steve Stripling said. “They’re mature enough and physical enough at this point to see where they end up on the depth chart.”
Barnett seems especially advanced for a first-year college player.
“Derek’s a tremendous talent,” defensive coordinator John Jancek said. “He’s strong, he’s quick, he can change direction. He’s in great shape, great physical condition. You can throw a lot at Derek. He can pick it all up and have it make sense. He’s doing a great job.
“Obviously, the strength of an 18-year-old is not going to be equal to a guy who’s been in a (college) weight room four or five years but Derek’s extremely powerful. He’s got great leverage and balance.”
Stripling is impressed with Barnett, too, noting: “We’re very pleased with his progress. He’s still a freshman and he’s making mistakes, but he’s showed a physicalness and maturity that’s unusual for a freshman.”
Jordan Williams has seen enough from the new D-linemen this preseason to believe they’re capable of playing SEC-caliber football.
“They’ve got size. They just have to utilize it,” he said. “They need to get better with their hands and using their body weight a little better.”
Most of all, they need to learn the scheme and their roles in it.
“A lot of them don’t know everything, so we always say, ‘If you’re going to mess up, mess up going 100 percent.’ Give all you can, and that’s what they’re doing,” Williams said. “I’ve seen a lot of effort, especially from Barnett and Hendrix.”
Tennessee’s front four will be younger and smaller than last fall’s line. There are some pluses to offset these minuses, however.
“We are definitely a lot more athletic,” Williams said. “There’s a lot of movement, a lot of good hand technique; we've definitely improved with that. We're a little bit undersized but we're moving around a lot.”
Movement was virtually non-existent last fall, when Vol linemen basically settled for getting a stalemate up front. There has been a monumental philosophical shift this year.
“We’ll definitely be a lot more disruptive,” Williams said. “Guys last year were just in the gaps, holding the holes. This year we’re getting after it. This is more fun. Making plays is what it’s all about.”
One key reason the line should be more disruptive in 2014 is Williams, who agreed to move from end to tackle and bulked up from 274 to 285 pounds for the switch.
“He’s doing a great job with his weight,” Stripling said. “I think he’s excited about playing in there. I think the key is athleticism. You’ll see Jordan make some plays at defensive tackle that we couldn’t make in the past.”
Some of those plays had better involve pressuring opposing quarterbacks. Tennessee was terrible in this regard last fall, recording just 18 sacks. By all accounts, the pass rush is vastly improved these days.
“The pass rush has been great,” O’Brien said. “I said to Corey Vereen and Jordan (Williams) the other day that I wish we could just sit there watching film and see how many sacks we’ve had this camp compared to last camp at this point. I guarantee we’ve tripled that number.
“We’ve really been getting after the ball with guys like Corey Vereen and Derek Barnett on the edges. They’ve been getting up the field, opening up the pocket for us so the tackles – me, Jordan and Owen – can get a little space and do some work in there, too.”
Williams agrees, noting: “With a lot more athleticism in there our pass rush is definitely going to be a lot better. We’ll be getting after the quarterback, a lot of movement and stuff like that. We’ve got a lot of quickness, a lot of fast guys, so we’re definitely getting after the quarterback.”
In addition to better quickness, this year’s defensive linemen have a better understanding of pass-rush techniques. That’s due to a full year under Stripling’s tutelage.
“As a D-line we’re understanding the points of pass rushing more,” O’Brien said. “You saw last year we were getting off our quarterback points, and he was spitting out of the pocket or spitting off the edge. We’re understanding our pass-rush lanes a lot better now.”
Tennessee’s linemen are noticeably quicker than last year’s but they’re also noticeably smaller, especially at tackle. That’s a trade-off Jancek is perfectly willing to make, however.
“They’re not the biggest guys in the world – that’s for sure – but they’re playing with better leverage, better hand violence,” he said. “They’re guys that can get off blocks and run and change direction. Those are certainly positives. We’re able to do more, as far as the line stunts.
“Having guys who can exchange gaps and things will allow us to be more effective than we were last year.”
Vols D-line vs. O-line
Steve Stripling video interview