It doesn’t take a degree in kinesiology or physics or a multi-million dollar contract to coach to understand that 600-plus pounds of offensive linemen versus one 260-pound defensive tackle equals gaping holes for runners.
When sophomore Kahlil McKenzie (pectoral), fifth-year senior Danny O’Brien (failed test) and sophomore Shy Tuttle (knee) were all lost to go with the unavailability of JUCO signee Alexis Johnson, Tennessee’s defense was going to have considerable trouble holding the point of attack.
Three Southeastern Conference foes to round out the regular season totaled 1,983 yards. That type of number doesn’t get posted by a foe versus a program like Tennessee’s and it’s an issue that must be corrected — immediately.
If there’s something the current staff on Rocky Top has proven in its four years in Knoxville it’s that it addresses needs in recruiting.
“It’s all about competitive depth,” fourth-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones told InsideTennessee. “We have some positions that we have to improve in our overall speed, our athleticism, but just improve from an overall numbers standpoint, too, and from a competitive nature as well.”
The Volunteers aren’t expected to sign a defensive lineman from the JUCO ranks this cycle but look for at least three tackles from the prep ranks to be part of the 2017 haul.
“The defensive tackle position is a position of physicality,” Jones told IT. “Unfortunately, injuries are going to occur. You can never have enough defensive linemen as we saw this year. For us to be where we’re at with all those injuries, it’s one of those years that is very, very unusual. Hopefully those years don’t come around very often and we’ve asked a lot of some individuals and I think they’ve done a very good job. From a recruiting standpoint, that definitely is a position that we need to improve from a competitive standpoint, from a depth standpoint.”
Tennessee isn’t alone in its search to add D-tackle ability and depth. It’s priority No. 1 for a majority of the FBS. However, there’s not enough bodies to go around and often prep defensive ends must pack on bulk if they want to get on the field.
“It’s a process,” Jones told IT. “First, it stems with the body frame and the toughness and the mindset because…all you have to do is talk to (Tennessee fifth-year senior defensive lineman) LaTroy Lewis. There is a difference going from defensive end to defensive tackle. There’s got to be a want-to, there’s got to be a toughness standpoint but also there’s got to be a body structure emphasis that you’re body’s able to do that and you’re able to put on weight.
“You look at (Tennessee fourth-year junior defensive tackle) Kendal Vickers. When Kendal Vickers came into the program, he was 225 pounds. Now he’s 280-plus. Kendal has done a great job maintaining that weight but also putting weight on the right way. A lot of times too, when you ask an individual to put weight on, you have to make sure that they’re putting it on the right way and it’s the right weight.”
Jones also depended on ends such as Jonathan Kongbo, Dimarya Mixon and Kyle Phillips to slide inside to play tackle this season. According to recent remarks from defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, it sounds like Kongbo will stay there. Mixon and Phillips may be the starters at end versus Georgia Tech in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff in Atlanta on Sept. 4, 2017.
Below is a look at how recruiting looks to be addressing needs along the future of Tennessee’s defensive front. Eric Crosby is the Scout 100 member and Virginia-based tackle that headlines the group. Matthew Butler is the Scout No. 1-ranked tackle in the Tar Heel State and sources close to IT predict he will commit to Tennessee on Wednesday afternoon.