Scott Hall’s been taking a beating the entire night.
The belt is on the line. He’s just worn consecutive bionic elbows. He reaches with all his might to tag in Kevin Nash, who’s ready to unleash hell.
With one last surge of adrenaline, Hall kicks himself just barely into reach of his partner, tags Nash into the ring. No one gets out alive. Belt retained.
In years past, it didn’t matter if Tennessee defensive ends were being abused by double-teams or used to mop up a soggy artificial surface as its opponents chewed clock and sealed up victories. There was no one in the corner to tag in, void of the lactic buildup and ready to dislodge the football from an unassuming quarterback.
My oh my how things have changed.
Kyle Phillips and Darrell Taylor were two of Tennessee’s most important signings of the 2015 class, both rating as Scout four-star prospects, possessing the ability to torment passers while coming off the edge. The thing about it…those cats won’t even start this fall. In fact, while they’re likely to be first in the for the chaining of the guard next year, neither may even be second-string on Team 120.
“It’s definitely competitive,” senior Corey Vereen said. “I’ve never experienced it, honestly. Dudes are competing for reps. If something happens, somebody else is ready to go immediately. It’s a good, healthy competition and also it’s going to help us throughout the season so guys don’t take too much of a load.
Taylor arrived to Rocky Top after playing everywhere from linebacker to wide receiver to kick returner at Hopewell (Va.) High School. Fourth-year Vols defensive line coach Steve Stripling on Taylor: “I’m really excited about him, and I think it’s just starting. I think it’s all ahead of him.”
Vereen himself opened up eyes of many, totaling 2.5 sacks at Alabama versus one of the more decorated left tackles in the nation in Cameron Robinson. But, even the Winter Garden, Florida, product with 35 games played under his belt may not start.
Dimarya Mixon sacrificed earlier in his Tennessee career by sliding inside to play defensive tackle when his body was built for end, but Vols coaches say he’s playing as well as he’s ever played this August.
With an eye toward the future, freshman Mykelle McDaniel just had his first practice for the Vols on Tuesday and converted linebacker Austin Smith is learning how to be productive with his hand on the ground.
Jonathan Kongbo’s recruitment and Vols fans on pins and needles all the way up to the point to where the former Scout five-star prospect enrolled in classes in Knoxville this summer. Kongbo lists at 6-feet-6, 270 pounds and looks like his dinner comes from animals he destroyed with his bare hands…but, he won’t start against Appalachian State on Sept. 1.
“It’s definitely a new thing because (Kongbo)’s coming from JUCO and everything,” Vereen said. “It’s not the same thing in terms of expectations day-in and day-out, but we’ve been working with him and he’s been showing promise. So we’re just working.”
So, who does figure to get the starting nod? On one side, fifth-year senior LaTroy Lewis, who’s seemingly been around long enough to have performed freshman hazing on Doug Atkins. His career got off to a slow start due to injuries, but he’s become the resident technician in Stripling’s meeting room.
Lewis said he has his spot right now because “I do my job.”
“I think our coaching staff has done a tremendous, incredible job, probably, in my eyes, the best in the country in recruiting,” Lewis said. “That’s a goal for a big-time Division I SEC program is to each year build and build and build and keep building more talent and more speed. We’re definitely heading in the right direction with that.”
Last but not least is “Productive Pete.” The media guide cover boy. The end on more watch lists than John Dillinger. Derek Barnett.
“I watch him practice every day, and I hear the scouts come in and say he’s not this height or he’s not that,” Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop told InsideTennessee. “Well, watch the film. Put the film on and watch the guy practice on a daily basis. He practices as hard as anybody I’ve been around in a long, long time. He’s got an intensity to him; he’s a savage when he’s out on the field.”
In 26 games, Barnett has 91 solo tackles, 33 tackles for loss and 20 sacks. This summer, he’s emerged as a leader.