Tennessee’s defensive line entered this season as one of the most feared entities on the team.
The Vols finished tied at No. 27 in the country last season with 35 total sacks for an average of 2.69 per game behind All-SEC defensive ends Derek Barnett and hybrid talent Curt Maggitt. The duo combined for 21 sacks and 35.5 tackles for loss and entered 2015 as one of the most coveted bookends to a potentially fierce D-line.
Tennessee racked up eight sacks so far this year, but the front four only accounts for three of those takedowns and is hindered by the loss of Maggitt, who left the Oklahoma game with a bone chip in his hip and has been ruled out indefinitely. Maggitt’s absence up front has sputtered the production of the defensive line as teams are able to key in on Barnett during pass rushing situations.
"Part of elevating your game is [that] you're going to have the attention of your opponents, whether it's them keeping a tight end in to double team you or chip in with a running back, or even nudging the tight end out on a pass route,” Butch Jones said about his star end.
“Those are all things that really are a compliment to him, and teams have been doing that. He's a great, great competitor and I know he holds himself, in terms of accountability of his style of play, to a very high standard. He takes great pride in his performance."
The sophomore has only recorded one sack through four games and has yet to heat up as SEC play begins, something defensive coordinator John Jancek needs to see as the schedule toughens up.
“He’s got to find a way to get to the quarterback,” Jancek said. “He’s had some nagging type injuries. He’s got to have a breakout game. Derek hasn’t really taken over a game like we had hoped he would at this stage, but certainly without Curt on the other side, they can certainly focus and put more attention on him.”
The Vols are also rolling in an injection of youth along the line as they slowly turn the page from young talent to mature playmakers. Freshmen tackles Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie have worked themselves into the rotation over the first four weeks, while fellow freshman Kyle Phillips slides in at defensive end in the team’s third down package. Defensive line coach Steve Stripling likes what he’s seen from his youngsters as the defensive line continues developing.
“Now they can play in critical situations. They’re in the rotation,” Stripling said. “Really, right now, we’re playing five tackles and five ends. We’re playing ten. At this point, our motto this week is every play is fourth-and-one, this game is fourth-and-one and whoever is producing on the field are the guys who are playing.”
Arkansas is no stranger to throwing the football this season. The Razorbacks average 285 yards per game through the air and have completed 68.9 percent of their passes so far this season. But Bret Bielema’s squad makes it know that the modus operandi in Fayetteville is running the football effectively, and Tennessee’s defensive line seems up for the challenge as it continues to adjust to life without Maggitt.
“That’s what the message has been. We call it inside run,” Stripling said. “It’s going to be a 60 minute inside run day on Saturday. I think they’ve limited other offenses to two or three possessions a half at times. Our job is to stop the run, get ahead of the chains and then get off the football field.”