KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee believes its defense has the depth that can enable the Volunteers to avoid the blown leads that haunted them in each of their losses last year.
The depth is most notable up front, where the ninth-ranked Volunteers have accumulated so much talent that former five-star recruits haven’t been able to work their way atop the depth chart. Tennessee opens the season Thursday by hosting Appalachian State.
“Honestly, this is the most depth (at defensive end) we’ve ever had since I’ve been here personally,” senior defensive end Corey Vereen said. “I’m not used to this.”
The Volunteers went 9-4 last season but led in each game they lost. They were up at least 13 points in losses to Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas. They fell to eventual national champion Alabama by giving up a go-ahead touchdown with 2:24 remaining.
Tennessee outscored teams 378-173 in the first three periods but was outscored 87-79 in the fourth quarter and overtime.
“There have been times where we’ve had guys out there who had already played 60 snaps,” defensive line coach Steve Stripling said. “It’s hard to (have) what we term as Superman efforts, closing a drive out, a two-minute drive, making those efforts and plays, that’s hard to do if you’ve been out there 60 snaps.”
That shouldn’t be an issue this season.
Tennessee believes it has the elements in place to be “dominant and disruptive,” the buzzwords new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has consistently used to describe his ideal defense since arriving from Penn State.
“We’re deeper here at d-end than I’ve probably been anywhere,” Shoop said.
The Vols’ depth is evident from a look at some of the players who aren’t expected to start Thursday’s opener. Defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie was rated as the nation’s No. 1 recruit in his class by Scout in 2015, yet he’s still listed as a second-teamer behind senior Danny O’Brien and junior Kendal Vickers. Sophomore defensive end Kyle Phillips, a former five-star prospect, isn’t on the first team or second team.
Both guys are still expected to play Thursday. Tennessee is hoping to rotate about six defensive ends into the game at various points, which should prevent the Vols from overworking anyone and relying too heavily on defensive end Derek Barnett, who has recorded 10 sacks each of the last two seasons.
“This rotation we’re talking about is going to put us in better position to close games,” Stripling said.
Tennessee also is bullish on the rest of its defense.
The linebacker corps features returning starters Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Darrin Kirkland Jr. Cornerback Cam Sutton, entering his fourth year as a starter, headlines a secondary that features plenty of guys versatile enough to play multiple positions.
The Vols built their depth on defense by signing two straight recruiting classes that had consensus top-five rankings. The second of those classes arrived in 2015, which means all those recruits have now been on campus at least one year.
Tennessee also has received a boost this year from the returns of Phillips, tackle Shy Tuttle and defensive back Rashaan Gaulden from injuries that caused them to miss most or all of the 2015 season. Tuttle has been brought along slowly as he recovers from a broken fibula, but Tennessee coach Butch Jones said the sophomore tackle would be available Thursday.
“We’re at the stage now where we can rotate guys in and not have a drop-off at any level,” Sutton said. “In the fourth quarter, we can have our closers in and be able to close games out.”
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