VOL. 42 | NO. 14 | Friday, April 6, 2018
Who starts on defense? You’ll have to wait
Darrell Taylor, right, had the best season of any of Tennessee’s defensive ends in 2017, but that’s no guarantee under the new regime. Jonathan Kongbo, left, has yet to live up to his potential. -- File | Jerry Denham | The Ledger
Jeremy Pruitt hasn’t been afraid to change things around during his first spring practice as Tennessee’s head football coach.
First, he’s holding off until scrimmages (at least) before he talks about individual players, a change of protocol from his predecessor, Butch Jones.
Asked if there were any leaders on the offensive line after last Saturday’s sixth spring practice, Pruitt said, “Yeah, Coach (Will) Friend is the leader of that group.”
Friend is the offensive line coach.
Nor did Pruitt make players available to media after practices, at least through the first two weeks. Another change from Jones.
As for a depth chart, forget it. Everybody’s getting a shot this spring. More change.
“Every day we evaluate all four groups,” Pruitt says. “We don’t have any starters. We don’t have any second- or third-team guys. We have a rep chart. Everything is being evaluated.”
Pruitt will put the Vols through two scrimmages before the DISH Orange and White Game on April 21 (2 p.m. EDT, SEC Network). Tennessee’s new coach is going to make it as close to a real game as possible. Another change from Jones, whose spring games were controlled workouts.
“We want to prepare and get used to our expectations because everything is new,” Pruitt adds. “Everything is new to what these guys have been accustomed to. I don’t want our first time (playing a game) to be when we are heading to Charlotte (for the Sept. 1 opener against West Virginia). We want to get it the way it’s going to be the night before a game. That’s what we are going to do.”
As the Vols conclude their third week of spring practices, the Ledger takes a look at Tennessee’s defensive units, kickers and punters.
Tennessee’s defense will have a new look with the 3-4 scheme – the same style employed by Alabama and Georgia – and a familiar face missing up front in three-year starting tackle Kendal Vickers, a fifth-year senior in 2017. Also gone are starting tackle Kahlil McKenzie Jr., who bypassed his senior season for the NFL Draft, and backup tackle Quay Picou, who left the team before spring practices.
Those departures leave Pruitt and new defensive coordinator Kevin Sherrer thin on the defensive front this spring.
Senior Shy Tuttle gets a look at the nose tackle position and will be a huge part of the defense moving forward. Tuttle had 27 tackles in 10 games last season while coming off back-to-back significant leg injuries in 2015 and ’16. He could also play end in three-man fronts. Tuttle’s backup at nose tackle this spring is redshirt freshman Eric Crosby, a four-star prospect form Virginia Beach, Virginia.
At defensive tackle, fifth-year senior Alexis Johnson returns, but the transfer from Fort Scott (Kansas) Community College has played limited snaps at Tennessee (11 games, 14 tackles, two sacks).
Senior Kyle Phillips of Nashville’s Hillsboro High has the versatility to play either nose tackle, defensive end, or linebacker in the Vols’ new scheme. Phillips, hampered by injuries his first two seasons, was healthy last season and finished with 35 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.
Fifth-year senior Jonathan Kongbo has a chance to make an impact as the third down lineman at end. The No. 1-rated JUCO prospect (247Sports) from Arizona Western Community College has yet to play up to the ranking; despite earning a starting job in 2017, Kongbo had just nine solo tackles last season and 27 total tackles.
Sophomore tackle/end Kivon Bennett, son of former Alabama All-American Cornelius Bennett, is back after the previous staff burned his redshirt season by using him for 14 snaps in four games of mop-up duty. Redshirt freshman Matthew Butler is also a backup at tackle/end in the 3-4 front.
True freshman Greg Emerson is a tackle to watch this spring. The four-star recruit from North Side High in Jackson, Tennessee, missed the 2017 season after suffering a dislocated ankle and broken fibula last July at Nike’s The Opening Camp, and said in December he would be ready for spring.
Tennessee adds three newcomers at tackle when fall camp starts in August: freshmen Brant Lawless and Kingston Harris and junior Emmit Gooden. Gooden, who played at Haywood High in Brownsville, Tennessee, was rated the No. 7 junior college defensive tackle in the nation by 247Sports, but he must take care of his academics this spring to qualify.
Fourth-year junior Darrell Taylor was the Vols’ best defensive end last year with 15 solo tackles, 12 assists, four tackles for loss and three sacks, and he’s atop this unit this spring.
If you include Kongbo and Phillips as ends, along with Taylor, the trio of Kongbo, Phillips and Taylor played 92 percent of Tennessee’s snaps for the defensive end positions in 2017 – despite Taylor being suspended two games and Kongbo one for disciplinary reasons.
Tennessee’s other returning ends played limited roles. Butler played in eight games last year and Deandre Johnson played in six, while redshirt freshman Ryan Thaxton redshirted. Third-year sophomore Ja’Quain Blakely moved from defensive end to tight end for the spring; his only role last year was on the punt team.
Pruitt and his staff landed two freshmen ends in the 2018 class who could develop into interior linemen called ends in three-man fronts and tackles in four-man fronts (like Kongbo and Phillips).
John Mincey of Clinch County High in Homerville, Georgia, was a former Arkansas commitment and chose the Vols over South Carolina, and Kurott Garland put up staggering defensive numbers at Heritage High in Conyers, Georgia. Both arrive in the summer.
Three veteran linebackers finished their eligibility in 2017: Colton Jumper, Cortez McDowell and Elliott Berry.
Jumper, a former walk-on from Chattanooga’s Baylor School, started 13 games the past two seasons filling in for the injured Darrin Kirkland Jr., a fourth-year junior this year. McDowell was a backup to Jalen Reeves-Maybin now of the Detroit Lions in 2015 and ‘16 and started four games last season while battling injuries. Berry was a backup in 2017 after injuries put him in a starter’s role for four games in 2016.
Despite the three losses, the linebacker unit is solid this spring and only gets better this summer with the arrival of newcomers.
Kirkland Jr. was on the 2015 All-Freshman team but sustained significant injuries the past two seasons. He’s started 16 games his first two seasons – 10 as a freshman – and last August suffered a torn meniscus in August and missed the season. He’s limited in spring practices.
With him on the sideline last season, junior Daniel Bituli of Nashville Christian School took advantage of the opportunity and led the team in tackles with 90 (44 solo, 46 assists), had three tackles for loss and an interception. Bituli, however, is out this spring with knee and shoulder injuries.
Redshirt junior Quart’e Sapp was fourth on the team in tackles last year with 78 (39 solo, 39 assists) as an outside linebacker after his first two season were cut short by injuries.
Thus, UT has four linebackers for the 3-4 defense with starter’s experience: Bituli, Kirkland, Sapp and Taylor.
Redshirt sophomore Jordan Allen has a head start on other newcomers this spring after arriving in January. Allen was a big snare by Pruitt in the December signing period when he chose the Vols over Michigan State and TCU. After a redshirt season in 2016 at UC Davis, the four-star JUCO recruit was limited by injuries in 2017 at City College of San Francisco.
Other returnees this spring are redshirt freshman Solon Page, fourth-year junior Austin Smith, sophomores Will Ignont and Shanon Reid and fifth-year senior Dillon Bates. Bates has endured an injury-plagued career and had six tackles in 10 games last season.
Alexis Johnson has seniority at defensive end, but the fifth-year senior was used sparingly by the previous coaching staff. -- Kyle Zedaker | Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com
Smith was expected to start the 2017 opener against Georgia Tech, suffered a knee injury on game week and was limited to six games. He missed the 2016 season with a shoulder injury. After seeing spot duty at defensive end those two seasons, Smith will benefit from playing linebacker in the Vols’ new scheme.
Ignont, likewise, should benefit from the defensive changes. Not so much for Page and Reid, smaller linebackers recruited by the previous staff to play outside in the 4-3 scheme.
True freshman JJ Peterson of Colquitt County High in Moultrie, Georgia, could be an impact player, but the four-star outside linebacker doesn’t arrive until the summer.
One of Pruitt’s biggest tasks this spring is nailing down the cornerback rotation with the loss of four who played key roles in 2017. Emmanuel Moseley, Justin Martin and Shaq Wiggins were all seniors, while Rashaan Gaulden declared for the NFL Draft. The four combined for 91 percent of the cornerbacks’ snaps in 2017.
Junior Carlin Fils-aime, who spent his first two seasons at running back, made the offseason move to the secondary where he’ll play cornerback, while junior Tyler Byrd moves from receiver to the secondary.
Juniors Baylen Buchanan and Marquill Osborne are two of the Vols’ top corners this spring, while sophomore Shawn Shamburger is out this spring with a knee injury.
Buchanan, son of former NFL star Ray Buchanan, started a game as a freshman in 2016 and showed some promise, but last season played little as Gaulden’s backup at nickel back. He played in six games and had four tackles.
Osborne, a four-star recruit from Cornelius, North Carolina, played in nine games in 2017 and had five tackles.
Other corners this spring are fifth-year senior D.J. Henderson, a junior college transfer who played only special teams last year, and redshirt freshmen Cheyenne Labruzza and Terrell Bailey. Labruzza is out this spring, coming off a knee injury and surgery from the 2017 season, and Henderson is out this spring with an undisclosed injury.
Pruitt is better stocked at safety with the return of fifth-year senior Todd Kelly Jr., senior Micah Abernathy and junior Nigel Warrior. All have starter’s experience.
UT’s only loss at safety from the 2017 roster was then-senior Evan Berry, an All-American punt returner in 2015 whose junior and senior seasons were hampered by injuries. He made only three career starts at safety.
Warrior had a big year in 2017, his first as a starter, and graded out as one of the defense’s top players, finishing second in tackles (83).
He’s the son of former Tennessee All-American defensive back Dale Carter (1990-91). Abernathy, who has 22 starts the past two seasons, was third in tackles (81) but didn’t grade well among the defenders.
Kelly started 11 games in 2016 and led the team in tackles but lost his starting job to Warrior in preseason and, hampered by a lingering knee injury, opted to have surgery after two games. Kelly is out this spring with knee and ankle issues.
Other returning safeties are sophomores Theo Jackson and Malik Gray.
Jackson played in 11 games as a freshman, mostly on special teams, and had eight tackles.
Gray was expected to redshirt with one appearance before the Oct. 26 Kentucky game, but the previous staff burned his redshirt by playing him on special teams against the Wildcats.
Two safeties arrive in the summer: Joseph Norwood of Chattanooga’s Brainerd High School and Trevon Flowers of Tucker (Georgia) High. Flowers, who can play any position in the secondary, likely will be chosen in the 2018 Major League Baseball Draft, but he has said he plans to play football for the Vols.
Tennessee loses one of the nation’s top punters in Trevor Daniel, a former walk-on from Dickson County High School and a senior in 2017. He leaves as the program’s leader in single-season and career punting average.
Freshman Paxton Brooks of Airport High School in West Columbia, South Carolina, is expected to win the starting job as the only scholarship punter. Brooks enrolled in January and is going through spring practices. He was rated the No. 2 punter in the 2018 class by Kohl’s Professional Camps and was one of two punters in the 2018 Under Armour All-American game.
Walk-on punters are sophomores Joe Doyle of Knoxville Farragut High and Grayson Linde of Ravenwood High in Brentwood.
Tennessee lost three-year starting place-kicker Aaron Medley, who split place-kicking duties as a senior last season with sophomore Brent Cimaglia. Cimaglia, who played at Page High School in Franklin, began the season as Tennessee’s long-range kicker but handled all the duties in two games when Medley was out due to illness.
The Vols add former Michigan kicker Ryan Tice, who joins the team this summer as a walk-on graduate transfer with two years of eligibility.
Brooks, an outstanding place-kicker as well as punter, could make a run at both jobs for the Sept. 1 opener against West Virginia.
Dave Link is a freelance writer living in Knoxville.