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VOL. 39 | NO. 15 | Friday, April 10, 2015

Injuries slow development of Vol defensive players

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Tennessee football fans might want to look past the defensive lineup for the Orange & White Spring Game. It will bear little resemblance to the unit that will start the 2015 season opener against Bowling Green on Sept. 5 at Nashville’s LP Field.

The Vols are without nine players in spring practice due to injuries, and several others are working on a limited basis.

The hardest hit unit is the defensive line – by far.

“We really only have five true healthy defensive linemen (this spring),” UT coach Butch Jones says, “and not only does that hurt your development as a defense, but it really sets back your development as an offense.”

Defensive coordinator John Jancek isn’t worried about the offense. His concern is defense as the Vols complete their third week of spring practices.

Among those out of the April 25 spring game are:

  • Defensive end Derek Barnett, who earned numerous freshman All-America honors in 2014
  • Junior defensive tackle Danny O’Brien, who started 12 games
  • Senior hybrid linebacker/defensive end Curt Maggitt, an All-SEC second-team player
  • Freshman defensive end Kyle Phillips, a highly-touted January enrollee.
  • Defensive linemen Corey Vereen and Owen Williams are working on a limited basis.

UT has been forced to get creative during spring drills with all the missing parts to its defensive line.

“It’s challenging,” Jancek explains, “like you can’t roll guys in, you don’t have certain packages. Like we don’t have a goal-line (defense) package right now. So the offense, they’re practicing goal line, and we don’t have goal line.

“We’re not going to use anything as an excuse. We’ve got to improve with the guys that we have and continue to get better each and every single opportunity that we have, whether it’s in the film room or on the practice field or in the weight room. Just everybody has to continue to work.”

In the Vols’ first scrimmage last Saturday, the defensive front was composed of: junior LaTroy Lewis, freshman Shy Tuttle, sophomore Kendal Vickers and sophomore Dimarya Mixon.

Lewis played in 13 games last season and started one; Mixon played in 12 games with no starts; and Vickers played in five games.

Mixon has moved from defensive tackle – where he backed up departed senior Jordan Williams last season – to defensive end fulltime. Vickers has moved from end to tackle.

The second-string defensive front for the first scrimmage consisted of senior Chris Weatherd, redshirt freshman Charles Mosley, junior Charles Folger and Andrew Butcher, a January enrollee.

UT coaches would like to see Butcher have an impact similar to Barnett’s in 2014, although that’s putting a lot on a freshman.

Weatherd played in 13 games with one start last year.

“(Weatherd) gives an element of speed off the edge, which is going to be important moving forward and adding depth to the defensive end position,” Jancek adds.

Jancek says Weatherd’s move is similar to that of Maggitt, who was UT’s fifth-leading tackler last season (48) and was second in tackles for loss (15) and first in sacks (11).

“I hope (Weatherd’s) role expands,” Jancek says. “That’s going to be on Chris, but he has shown some things. His speed and quickness is a benefit, as long as he can hold up on the line of scrimmage as a defensive end. That’s the big question for him. He’s got to get bigger and stronger (at 6-4, 225 pounds).”

Folger was a squad member in 2013 and played in one game last season. Mosley was redshirted last season as a true freshman.

On the positive side of UT’s injuries, it’s given the healthy defensive linemen the lion’s share of the repetitions – an opportunity stressed by Jones.

“Now is your time. I told them that in our team meeting,” Jones says. “This is a big, big spring for Dimarya Mixon. We moved him back to defensive end, his ‘natural’ natural position. LaTroy Lewis, he’s been in our football program now for a number of years. He will never have a better opportunity than what he is presented with this spring.

“Kendal Vickers is another individual who is about 285 pounds. He has worked exceptionally hard moving to defensive tackle [from end]. We’re hoping that he can be the Jordan Williams of this football team, and he has worked hard. Now go take advantage of your hard work.

“I am excited to see what these guys can do. With Andrew Butcher coming in, he’s another individual who is going to get premium repetitions, so this is going to be a great opportunity for everyone at that spot.”

UT’s offensive starters for the first scrimmage were Josh Dobbs at quarterback, Alvin Kamara at running back, Ethan Wolf at tight end, and Von Pearson, Cody Blanc, Alton “Pig” Howard as receivers. The offensive line was Kyler Kerbyson, Austin Sanders, Mack Crowder, Jashon Robertson, and Brett Kendrick.

Defensively, the starting secondary in the nickel package had Malik Foreman, Rashaan Gaulden, Brian Randolph, LaDarrell McNeil and Cam Sutton, with Kenny Bynum and Jalen Reeves-Maybin at linebackers.

5 Things to Watch: Defense

1. The Nickel Package

UT’s secondary must replace starting cornerback Justin Coleman, who also played the nickel back position in the Vols’ five defensive back set. Coleman started all 13 games and led the Vols in interceptions (four), and replacing a potential NFL draft pick will be difficult.

Sutton, Gaulden, and Devaun Swafford are in the running for the nickel job.

Sutton, a junior, has been a starting cornerback since his freshman year and appears a strong candidate to take over the nickel vacancy left by Coleman.

“I just want to give Cam the opportunity because one, he’s one of our best playmakers,” UT defensive backs coach Willie Martinez says. “Two, he likes it. He wants to do it, and that’s also encouraging as a staff, and the more guys who can play multiple positions, especially at the corners, the better we are going to be on defense.

Tennessee defensive coordinator John Jancek will be without many of his key players during the Vols’ annual spring game.

-- Andrew Bruckse | Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

“That doesn’t say we don’t have confidence in Rashaan because he’s really doing well, but again, you never know, too. Someone can get hurt, and we just want to make sure we are going to be ready for that.”

Gaulden, a sophomore from Independence High in Spring Hill, was Coleman’s backup at nickel last season. Gaulden played in 11 games and had seven tackles (five on special teams); he was also a track star at Independence and earned All-American honors as a member of a 1600 relay team that finished fourth nationally in the U.S. Junior Olympics.

Swafford, a junior, was a walk-on in 2013 and was awarded a scholarship by Jones on May 20, 2014. As a freshman, Swafford had an interception return for a touchdown against Florida and recovered a blocked punt for a 15-yard TD return; not since Dale Carter in 1990 did a UT player have an interception return for touchdown and special teams TD in the same season.

2. Tuttle Alert

Shy Tuttle was one of UT’s top signees for the 2015 class, and his January enrollment was perfect timing for him and the Vols’ depleted defensive front this spring.

Tuttle, 6-3, 315 pounds, is getting tons of work at defensive tackle, which will go a long way toward getting him in the rotation this fall.

“I like Shy,” Jancek points out. “He’s still going through a process, but you can see he’s really got some natural ability as a defensive lineman.”

UT’s coaches saw that during pre-spring workouts and work in the weight room, and Tuttle has carried it over this spring. In the Vols’ first day in pads, Tuttle had an interception and pass deflection, and drew plenty of praise from Jones.

“He came off the football, and you could see the disruptive quickness, you could see the explosiveness, you could see the use of his hands,” Jones says. “The thing I really liked about it was you could see his competitive nature. … And he’s very, very athletic. You could see instincts.”

No surprise there.

Tuttle was a five-star signee (by 247Sports) and rated the No. 24 prospect in the nation, the No. 5 defensive tackle, and top prospect in North Carolina as a senior. He was a consensus top-10 defensive tackle nationally and played in the 2015 Under Armour All-American game.

“Shy’s an extremely mature young man,” Jancek adds. “He’s working extremely hard, and he runs well for a guy his size. I’m sure glad he’s here, I can say that.”

Tuttle was a bit overshadowed by the signing of five-star defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie, son of former Vol Reggie McKenzie. However, Tuttle has a big jump on McKenzie, who missed his senior year of football at Clayton Valley Charter School after being rule ineligible as a transfer from Concord’s De La Salle High.

3. In The Middle

So who replaces departed senior middle linebacker A.J. Johnson, star of UT’s defense before being dismissed from the team after an alleged sexual assault last November?

Good question.

Sophomore Jakob Johnson started at middle linebacker against Missouri and Vanderbilt in the last two games of the regular season, and junior Kenny Bynum started the TaxSlayer Bowl.

Johnson looked like a rising star at times during the 2014 season, but he’s among the Vols out of action due to injury this spring.

That leaves Bynum, junior Jalen Reeves-Maybin, redshirt freshman Dillon Bates, and sophomore Cortez McDowell competing for the No. 1 spot at middle linebacker this spring.

Reeves-Maybin, of Clarksville’s Northeast High, started every game at weak-side linebacker in 2014 and tied with A.J. Johnson for the team-high tackles (101).

Bates, son of former UT and Dallas Cowboys safety Bill Bates, played in four games last season before suffering a torn labrum and receiving a redshirt season. He was a backup at weak-side linebacker, but made a move early this spring to middle linebacker.

McDowell played in 13 games last season on special teams and weak-side linebacker.

“It is going to be a work in progress,” Jones notes, of securing a middle linebacker. “No one individual is a finished product, to say the least.”

Bates moved to middle linebacker the first day of the spring.

“Dillon can play all three linebacker positions,” Jancek says. “To be honest with you, the old days of the big old ‘Mike’ linebacker in there, them running isolated in there, it’s not that [any more]. The game is lateral. It’s quick screens on the perimeter. What we ask our ‘Mike’ linebacker to do is they’ve got to be able to run and move, so that’s a positive thing having Dillon there.”

4. Secondary General

Fifth-year senior Brian Randolph has been a starter since his freshman year of 2011, beginning as a free safety and nickel in 2011 and moving to strong safety in 2013 and ’14 (he missed most of 2012 after a knee injury).

Last season, Randolph played in all 13 games (11 starts) and was third in the SEC in tackles for a defensive back (88) and tackles per game (6.8).

Jones looks for Randolph to lead the secondary in 2015, and it started this spring.

“Brian Randolph knows the entire defense, inside and out, can get players lined up, and our players respect him,” Jones explains, “so having him on the football field, really mentoring our young players, has been invaluable for us.”

Randolph, who played for Kell High in Marietta, Ga., embraces the leadership role, and has been encouraged this spring with the new players in the secondary.

“They have a lot of talent, give you a lot to work with,” Randolph says. “The more competition in our backfield will make me better. It’s good to sit back and watch them make plays and make the defense better.”

5. Will a Berry Breakout?

UT fans got to see lots of sophomore kick returner/defensive back Evan Berry last season – but not so much of his twin brother Elliott, a backup outside linebacker/special teams player.

Evan Berry, who averaged 29.5 yards on 14 kickoff returns as a freshman, is making a push this spring to see more time in the secondary. He and running back Kamara were the two players Jones singled out when talking about the first scrimmage.

“(Evan) really showed out today from the safety position,” Jones says. “He had a couple of interceptions, played downhill, and played with a great, great confidence. That was great to see.”

The Berry twins are brothers of Eric Berry, former UT All-American and current NFL player. Their father, James, played running back for UT from 1978-81.

Evan Berry was a four-star prospect at defensive back, while Elliott was a three-star prospect at outside linebacker/safety.

Jones likes what he’s seen from Evan this spring – for the most part.

“It has been a work in progress,” Jones says. “There have been good days, there have been days that have been better than others. But one thing about Evan is, he is extremely competitive, and you saw that [in the first scrimmage]. We all know he can run. Now, it is being able to have the instincts, understanding offensive schemes, what they are trying to approach, just letting it go.”

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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