Tennessee’s defensive line made itself a known presence last season.
The Vols racked up 35 total sacks, good for third in the SEC, and averaged 2.69 quarterback takedowns a game. Led by defensive end Curt Maggitt, the D-line wrecked opponents up front and became the identity of a defense that dominated on third down with the help of a strong front four.
It’s not like the unit needed to get much stronger. And then it did anyway.
Class of 2015 commits Shy Tuttle, Kyle Phillips and Andrew Butcher all enrolled early this winter to get a head start on the learning curve. Scout’s No. 1-rated overall recruit and fellow defensive lineman, Kahlil McKenzie, joins the team in June.
Phillips was ruled out for spring practice with an injury, but Tuttle and Butcher participated at full strength and settled into life as a Division I football player quite well at a time when they should have been ordering high school graduation invitations.
“We’re continuing to progress. I think they really, really benefitted from the repetitions. They benefitted from early enrollment,” Jones said.
“It’s a transition, especially up front, from the style of play to mental conditioning to the overall toughness and mental effort that it takes. I thought they both did a very good job. They finished very strong.”
Tuttle’s accelerated growth since the first practice is no secret. Jones piled praise on his new freshman at almost every turn over the course of the spring, and Vols’ fans were able to see his mammoth size and brute strength on display in one-on-one drills during the Orange and White Game.
“For Shy, it’s continuing to develop his body and strength levels,” Jones said. “I thought both individuals did a really, really good job.”
Butcher is the less physically gifted of the two and will have to work harder on his technique to make an early impact in the deep D-line rotation. But the freshman also showcased his leverage ability and natural talent in spurts in spring camp. For Jones, Butcher’s involvement in the program’s extensive strength and conditioning program will greatly assist in his development moving forward.
“I thought Andrew did some really good things moving forward in the spring game, but obviously Andrew needs to get much stronger, needs to put some weight on to play in this conference, which he will,” Jones said.
It’s easy to get caught in the hype machine and let it barrel over you, and the third-year Tennessee coach understands how careful he has to be when discussing the gobs of talent at his disposal on the defensive line. The early enrollees are supposed to be picking out prom suits right now, not picking apart play calls on an SEC football field.
“I think we have to be very, very careful that we don’t set all these high standards and expectations. These are still 17, 18-year-old young adults coming in here and playing college football for the first time and playing in the SEC as well, playing a position that is a developmental position and these are going to be still true freshmen.”
But with the way Butcher and Tuttle performed this spring, Jones’ tempered expectations will expand with each devastating swim move and powerful practice sack made by his young playmakers.
“They’re extremely competitive,” Jones said. “They’re very intelligent and they need football. They want football."