Position rewind/preview: Defensive line
After finishing the offensive side of the ball last week, we shift our focus this week in our season rewind/preview feature to the defensive side of the ball where John Jancek's unit surpassed everyone's expectations in 2014. The Vol defense led by the second year coordinator made giant strides particularly in their play on third down.
A big reason for that was the significant improvement of the defensive line especially rushing the quarterback so why not start our look at the Vol defense with Steve Stripling's group in the trenches.
2014-15 REWIND/PREVIEW: DEFENSIVE LINE
Volquest.com pre-season question: HOW MUCH WILL THE DEFENSIVE FRONT IMPROVE IN 2014?
Let's face it. This may be the easiest answer to any pre-season question and that answer is a lot. Tennessee's defensive front went from what was perceived as a liability in the pre-season to a real strength of the defense.
Tennessee's defense held their opponents to only 299 less rushing yards in 2014 compared to 2013, but it was a defensive front that was much more active. The defensive front accounted for 28 of the team's 35 sacks. And that front had 26.5 tackles for loss in the run game.
The cataylst for success was the durability of inside players Jordan Williams, Danny O'Brien and Owen Williams who played a ton of snaps as well as the playmaking of Curt Maggitt and freshman sensation Derek Barnett.
Not the biggest, the strongest or the deepest defensive front, the Vols were extremely effective due to their much improved technique and improved athleticism. Veteran defensive line coach Steve Stripling deserves a ton of credit for his improvement with his unit.
[rl]28 - That number of sacks just by the defensive line is the high number of sacks for a Vol defense since 2005. The team total of 35 is the movest by a Vol defense since their school record 50 in 2000.
0 - Number of times that Tennessee has had two players with double digit sacks in the same year till Maggitt and Barnett did it this season.
5th - Where Barnett's season total of 20.5 tackles for loss ranks in school history. The only four players with more TFL's in a single season? Leonard Little, Reggie White, John Henderson, Todd Kelly.
Eye towards spring:
With everyone back on the defensive front except for Jordan Williams, there's plenty of optimism for the defensive line. Make no mistake how important Williams was to this team and that defensive line unit both with production and leadership. Williams' commitment to add weight to play inside was a real tone setter for that unit. A unit that responded nicely to all of us who said they would be the weak part of the defense.
This spring, it's about continuing to try and build some depth both at defensive tackle and defensive end. Newcomer Kyle Phillips and freshman sensation Derek Barnett are out after shoulder repair. Dimarya Mixon showed some promise at defensive end in the bowl game and in the bowl prep. LaTroy Lewis seemed to do nice things when given a chance. How much can he grow this off-season as an end to really create a solid two deep behind Barnett, Maggitt, and Corey Vereen. Lewis and Mixon and even Vereen faces new competiton with the arrival of Andrew Butcher and Phillips when he gets healthy. In the middle it's about consistency for Owen Williams and all eyes will be on newcomer Shy Tuttle. How quickly can Tuttle pick up things and can he become more consistent. Something that some question about him coming out of high school.