Already one of Tennessee’s thinner roster positions, the Vols’ defensive line took a big hit over the course of the offseason. Their leading pass rusher from a year ago, Deandre Johnson, transferred to Miami after the firing of Jeremy Pruitt and subsequent hiring of Josh Heupel. Following him was Tennessee’s leading tackler Henry To’o To’o, who went to SEC rival Alabama. Kivon Bennett was also dismissed from the team following an arrest early in the 2020 season, just to name a few of the notable subtractions.
Now, it will be up to new defensive coordinator Tim Banks to make something out of this mess, create some depth on the front, and ultimately, put Tennessee and its fast-paced offense, the respective star of the show, in the best place to win.
“To win. That's our number one goal,” Banks said at Tuesday’s Media Day. “We want to win. We want to find a way to do our part to make sure at the end of the day that UT is successful. What that looks like week in and week out, we don't know. We have some core fundamentals and beliefs that we have that we think are critical to us playing great defense, but ultimately, our number one goal is just to win. That's how we start everything, and that's how we end everything. What do we need to do to win?”
Leading the way on the defensive line is fifth year “super” senior Matthew Butler. The 6-foot-4, 295 pound lineman followed a breakout 2019 with another solid campaign in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, one in which he started all 10 games and led the Tennessee line with 43 tackles. Butler was named to the Preseason All-SEC Third Team entering 2021, as he figures to anchor a young Tennessee attack.
Another experienced body that is looking to make his presence felt is Aubrey Solomon, a senior who transferred to Knoxville after spending his first two collegiate years at Michigan. Solomon got into all 10 games for the Vols last season -- including six starts on the line -- and totaled 17 tackles and one quarterback hurry.
Outside of Butler and Solomon, the Vols have a couple of veterans looking to make the jump from a serviceable player to a high-impact contributor. LaTrell Bumphus, a fifth year senior, has played in 38 games and started 12 times. He got off to a good start to 2020 with 14 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and one sack through the first five games, but a knee injury kept him out of the second half of the season.
In a similar spot to Bumphus is redshirt junior Kurott Garland. At 6-foot-3, 310, Garland has made six starts at the nose tackle position and figures to get plenty of reps there as well.
Omari Thomas, Dominic Bailey and Amari McNeill are among the more inexperienced, but former blue chip defensive line prosects who could see an increase in action this fall.
With all that being said, Banks does not expect one guy to hold down one specific spot on the line all season. In order to combat a weak depth chart, Banks has emphasized versatility in the spring and early stages of fall camp. For example, normal outside rushers like Butler may line up on the inside from time to time.
“I just believe in versatility, and that's what we're trying to develop,” Banks said. “As coaches, our job is to put everybody in the best position to be successful. We're going to play to their strengths, whatever that is. But if we were able to do it exactly how we want to do it, we want those guys to be able to play outside to inside.”
Whether that strategy pays off remains to be seen. Banks all but confirmed Tuesday that his defense isn’t settling on one specific base, but rather will use multiple systems from week to week. With this approach, establishing depth will be even more important as players are rotated in and out based on the system. But that’s something that Banks and his staff are looking forward to.
“I think that's the million-dollar question,” Banks said of the questions regarding his line’s depth. “I think that's what we're going to work toward. We have some guys that have played. We also have a lot of youth and a lot of unknowns at that position. That's what makes it fun. We're excited about the challenge.”