UT vs. Mississippi State
Matthew Butler, #94, showing a little emotion after a big defensive stop against the Mississippi State offense on Saturday, October 12, 2019, in Neyland Stadium.

No position group improved more over the course of the 2019 season for Tennessee than its defensive line.

The Vols’ defensive line was a huge question mark going into the season after losing of Shy Tuttle, Kyle Phillips and Alexis Johnson to graduation. The Vols had only one defensive lineman with more than 15 career tackles entering the season, Emmitt Gooden, and he was lost for the season in fall practice.

Tennessee’s lack of experience showed early in the season as the Vols gave 213 rushing yards to Georgia State and failed to get pass rush the first month of the season. Tennessee’s defensive line started to turn a corner in October and were a key reason the Vols saved their season.

Tennessee gave up just 123 yards a game on the ground in their last eight with over 300 yards coming against Kentucky who ran the ball 64 times.

Back from last year’s defensive line is every major contributor including leading tacklers Matthew Butler, Greg Emerson and Darel Middleton. The Vols also get to add Emmitt Gooden back to the rotation in 2020 as well as blue chip recruits Omari Thomas and Dominic Bailey.

However, the man who deserves the majority of the credit for last year’s turnaround along the defensive front, Tracy Rocker, is no longer in Knoxville. The Vols’ two-year defensive line coach mutually parted ways with Pruitt and Tennessee, eventually signing a contract to go to South Carolina.

Tennessee quickly hired Rocker’s replacement hiring former Colorado and Kentucky defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh.

Brumbaugh has a reputation as a great talent developer and he’ll be put to the test immediately as the Vols look to develop quality, serviceable defensive linemen into All-SEC players.

Tennessee played six guys along its defensive line a year ago with not a lot of separation. Outside of the group’s leading tackler Butler only 12 tackles separated the group’s second to sixth leading tackler.

The same held true for sacks with Emerson, Aubrey Solomon and LaTrell Bumphus recording two and Butler recording 2.5.

The question for Tennessee’s defensive line is who can make a jump to improve the group from solid to very good. It should also be very interesting to see if the group of guys seeing playing grows.

As previously mentioned, Tennessee’s rotation was only six guys deep last year. Will the addition of Gooden and Thomas or development of Savion Williams, Elijah Simmons or John Mincey make a difference?

The defensive line will also be expected to make an impact rushing the passer this year. The Vols are thin at outside linebacker and lost their leading sacker, Darrell Taylor, from a year ago. Tennessee getting some interior pressure as its young edge rushers improve would make a big difference.

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