Photo by Danny Parker

Way-too-early look at 2-deep for Vols defense

Tennessee has gaping holes to fill on its defense before it gets back on the playing field in less than eight months.

The Derek Barnett era at Tennessee is over.

As great of a legacy as the defensive end leaves behind both as a ferocious player and a leader, Barnett also vacates a large heap of production (school record 33 career sacks) along the front-line of coordinator Bob Shoop’s defense.

It will take a team effort to make up for some of that void.

No-brainers as Vols starters next season are Kendal Vickers at defensive tackle, Darrin Kirkland Jr. at MIKE linebacker and RaShaan Gaulden in the secondary.

What IT sees as a potential starting defensive backfield could be wrong on nearly every starting position. Gaulden seems like the most sure-fire returning starter at nickelback, assuming he doesn’t slide back to safety in order to get Marquill Osborne on the field and more speed on the back end.

Todd Kelly Jr. started at safety in 10 of 11 games played last season, but the former Scout four-star prospect could be better served, adding 10 or so pounds and sliding up to be a cerebral, sideline-to-sideline linebacker.

Cornerbacks Justin Martin and Emmanuel Moseley both have starter’s experience but a mixed bag of results. At safety, the same can be said of Micah Abernathy, Evan Berry and Nigel Warrior. All of the above have ample athleticism. Tennessee coaches must dig in and mold marginal play into All-SEC caliber performers.

The question marks at cornerback yield an opportunity for the newcomers. Shawn Shamburger may be the most fundamentally sound talents set to ink with the Big Orange on Feb. 1. He could still wind up signing elsewhere and plans to take several official visit this month, but if Tennessee gets him, it gets a multi-positional prospect for the back end.

Vickers went from being a lightly used rotational lineman to one of the most important members of the team. That resulted in 38 tackles, including six for loss with 2.5 sacks. Coaches don't tend to care who lists in the starting lineup and that's certainly true at D-tackle. As first reported by IT, Shy Tuttle will miss all 15 spring practices and is a strong candidate to have to miss the 2017 season as he recovers from knee surgeries. Although Jonathan Kongbo came on and played some quality football in the 14-point bowl victory over Nebraska, best guess is Kahlil McKenzie recovers from his torn pectoral and starts next to Vickers.

Kirkland will be a leader and a candidate to be a team captain. If there’s a silver lining to his and the brash of injuries that punched the Vols linebacker spot in the face it’s the extensive experience gained by Colton Jumper (7 starts in 2016), Elliot Berry (4) Cortez McDowell (3). Prior to his ACL tear on Sept. 17, Quarté Sapp was starting to move his way up the depth chart and become the heir apparent to Jalen Reeves-Maybin. Any of the above — plus Dillon Bates and Daniel Bituli — could start.

Barnett, LaTroy Lewis and Corey Vereen are gone and 74 career starts and 90 tackles for loss go with them. Kyle Phillips and Darrell Taylor both arrived on Rocky Top with star written all over them. Now, they’ll get their chance. Dimarya Mixon is the top candidate to challenge those two in the lineup.

Below is our way-too-early look at a projected two-deep for Tennessee when it faces Georgia Tech in Atlanta on Sept. 4.

FIRST TEAM

POSITION PLAYER
DE Kyle Phillips
DT Kahlil McKenzie
DT Kendal vickers
DE Darrell Taylor
MIKE Darrin Kirkland Jr.
WILL Cortez McDowell
NB RaShaan Gaulden
CB Emmanuel Moseley
S Micah Abernathy
S Todd Kelly Jr.
CB Shawn Shamburger

SECOND TEAM

POSITION PLAYER
DE Dimarya Mixon
DT Jonathan Kongbo
DT Alexis Johnson
DE Austin Smith
MIKE Elliot Berry
WILL Quarté Sapp
NB Marquill Osborne
CB Justin Martin
S Evan Berry
S Nigel Warrior
CB Cheyenne Labruzza

Photo by Danny Parker
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