HOOVER, Ala. — Tennessee must replace 23.5 sacks from its 2016 defense — almost the entire bulk of production coming from former ends Derek Barnett, Cory Vereen and LaTroy Lewis.
Barnett exited the program as the school’s all-time leading sack artist and was a 1st-round pick by the Philadelphia Eagles, but senior defensive tackle Kendal Vickers is confident Tennessee still has the requisite pieces to rush the quarterback this fall.
“Derek was probably the best DL in SEC history. We lost Vereen, too,” he said. “We lost a bunch of guys, but it’s always been next man up. We’ve had the whole offseason to prepare for this year. I love those guys, but it’s not about them anymore. It’s about us right now as a team. We’ve got to just go out everyday and complete like we’re going to be SEC Champions.”
Those “next men up” are headlined by Jonathan Kongbo and Darrell Taylor. Both have excelled in the weight room this offseason, eyeing breakout campaigns in 2017.
Coach Butch Jones said Kongbo “has had a good of an offseason as anybody.”
The former 5-star recruit struggled some in his transition to Tennessee last fall, battling being moved from end to tackle following Tennessee's rash of injuries. Kongbo didn’t record a tackle in an SEC game until mid-November against Missouri, where he finally flashed his athletic prowess with a long pick-6. The Vols have high hopes for Kongbo this fall, as the 6-foot-6, 265-pounder will strictly play defensive end.
“We've moved him outside to his natural position,” Jones said. “He's had as good of an offseason as anybody. He's about 265 pounds right now. He's one of those individuals who's working out day and night. So, we're excited about him.”
Taylor has emerged as another strength and conditioning all-star this summer, and Tennessee is looking to pair the 6-foot-6, 245-pound rush end opposite of Kongbo. In limited reps last year, Taylor had just nine tackles and zero sacks.
“Darrell Taylor is another young man that we thought took tremendous strides this offseason and into spring football,” Jones said.
“He's really committed himself to the weight room and strength and conditioning area. He doesn't even look like the same player right now. Again, I see both those individuals really stepping up.”
Meanwhile, former 5-star Kyle Phillips is finally healthy and expected to compete for serious snaps this fall, too. The Nashville native has battled a litany of significant shoulder injuries the last two seasons, but Phillips, who will play defensive end this year, is ready to go for training camp.“
"He’s an individual who’s been offset by injuries, but he’s back to full health," Jones said. "He’s one of those that has all the skill-sets. It’s just remaining healthy, so we’re excited.”
Tennessee can’t survive the rigors of the SEC with just three defensive ends, though, so the Vols must count on a few newcomers stepping into real roles immediately. Deandre Johnson flashed in extensive work as an early enrollee this spring, while Matthew Butler and Ryan Thaxton have turned heads during summer workouts.
Vickers likes what he’s seen from the three freshmen, saying, “They want to learn. They want to get better. They’re going to help us out this year.”