Tennessee is constructing a potentially all-time great defensive line
Just in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of seasons, it’s fair that I warn you: The University of Tennessee is back.
And I’m not talking back like those good ‘ol Derek Dooley days, I’m talking full-fledge, mid-to-late-90’s-style Phillip Fulmer back.
I’m sure you remember those days?
The Vols were so talent-rich, while having the scheme to support said talent, they were favorites over just about everyone — especially my hometown University of Georgia Bulldogs.
Furthermore, an all-star coaching staff continuously displayed its ability to recruit and develop personnel at a rapid clip.
And the results were astounding.
In fact, the Vols were so good that they were able to lose, perhaps, the greatest player the conference had ever seen, former quarterback Peyton Manning, and still win the national championship the very next season in 1998.
Fulmer, along with offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, put together a spread-based offensive attack equipped with a power run game, field-stretchers and quick-game nightmares with names like Tee Martin, Marcus Nash, Joey Kent, Peerless Price, Cedrick Wilson, Jay Graham, Travis Henry and Jamal Lewis.
But for a former defensive player, such as myself, it was the in-and-out game of defensive linemen Shaun Ellis, Leonard Little, Albert Haynesworth and John Henderson which most defined the era.
Future Hall of Fame defensive coordinator John “Chief” Chavis installed his aggressive even-front scheme which utilized the up-field rush prowess of a plethora of linemen and created opportunities for second- and third-level defenders in the form of turnovers and explosive plays.
Fast forward to present day, head coach Butch Jones, and his band of coaches, has proven to be a masterful recruiter along the lines of Fulmer and Co., and he’s shown the ability to develop said offensive players in his spread-to-pass scheme.
Jones may have developed the next Martin in junior QB Joshua Dobbs, and he has the Vols as talented in the offensive personnel department: Jalen Hurd, Alvin Kamara, Marquez North, Von Pearson, Josh Malone, Alton “Pig” Howard and Jason Croom — comprise one of the more talented units in the entire country.
But history is once again repeating itself as DC John Jancek may be building an all-time defensive line complete with a ferocious in-and-out game behind some of the most versatile talent you’ll ever see.
While the Southeastern Conference is certainly as stacked as it’s ever been, UT’s potential ability to control the line of scrimmage — specifically on defense — may be the difference-maker in the SEC’s eastern division.
Around these parts, Athens, Ga., Jancek’s name was once a bit of a punchline as he was the “co-conspirator,” in a football sense, of course, of the 2009-10 UGA defense which gave up close to 35 points a game in putrid 7-5 season — before he was unceremoniously dismissed.
Jancek, along with current Vols’ secondary coach Willie Martinez — who was actually UGA’s primary defensive coordinator — installed a speed-laced, 4-3-based scheme predicated on generating organic pressure through gaps.
Although it’s a gap-pressing scheme, at its core, Jancek’s scheme has some elements found in most odd-front alignments which are more commonly known as power-based operations.
Prior to joining the Vols, Jancek was the DC for Jones’ University of Cincinnati squad where the pair produced the Big East Defensive Player of the Year in hybrid lineman Derek Wolfe — whose ability to play anywhere on the line caused matchup problems like you wouldn’t believe.
Here we see how Jancek’s scheme shaped up at Cincinnati. Wolfe, pictured here at a 3-technique, literally played every position pictured on the line. The 1-technique is an important position as this player has to be able to take on double-teams to free up the linebackers.
The 3-technique gets the benefit of being a pure one-gap penetrator. His ability to get quick pressure in the face of the QB, or re-direct the ball-carrier, is paramount. The 5-technique needs to be versatile and able to hold the edge; the 7-technique needs to be darn near unblockable.
The “Sam,” which has become a prime position in UT’s arsenal, has to be able to cover tight ends and rush the passer.
And all heck breaks loose when Jancek unleashes his plethora of manufactured-pressure packages. As good as Jancek’s fronts were at Cincinnati, they can’t hold a candle to the type of talent he’s assembled in Knoxville.
Tennessee’s Diverse D-line Personnel
- Derek Barnett (Edge-player): For all the press Texas A&M freshman Myles Garrett received, and rightfully so, Vols’ 6-technique Derek Barnett may have been every bit his equal. The first-year stud racked up an amazing 10 sacks behind some serious athleticism. At 6’3″, 267 pounds, Barnett has prototypical size for an edge-player in a four-man front, however, he has shown the ability to rush from a two- or three-point stance; his size makes him capable of lining up on the inside and causing havoc, as well.
Here we see Barnett getting after South Carolina with an athletic dip-and-rip move; his ability to bend will be highly regarded at the next level. Barnett is undoubtedly one of the most talented edge-players in the country; Vols fans better enjoy him for the next two seasons.
- Kahlil McKenzie (Interior presence): Let’s face it, if you can’t get stellar play on the interior of your defensive front, it will be extremely hard to compete in the SEC where physical between-the-tackles rushing attacks are the norm. Commit Kahlil McKenzie looks to be the conference’s next interior star. The 6’3″, 354-pound behemoth has the size and athleticism to not only take on multiple blocks, he can defeat them as well. He may step right into the starting 1-tech role and dominate, immediately.
Case in point: His dismantling of this poor offensive lineman will become the norm in the SEC.
- Kyle Phillips (Edge-player): It’s like the rich keep on getting richer with the commit of 6-technique-blur Kyle Phillips, a 6’4″, 250-pound outside linebacker type. This kid has a first-step like you wouldn’t believe, and he has a nose for getting to the QB. Furthermore, he has the strength to set the edge and can rush from a two- or three-point stance. Eventually he will team up with Barnett to form the most gruesome one-two punch in the country.
Just look at his explosiveness; the ability to run the arc usually translates really well at any level. Once he develops counter moves he will be difficult to deal with.
- Shy Tuttle (Interior Presence): At 6’3″, 315 pounds, Shy Tuttle has the versatility of a young Vince Wilfork. He very well could play anywhere from the nose to the 3-technique. He has good closing speed and is a powerful as it gets. Going against teams that employ power personnel, having Tuttle and McKenzie on the field at the same time would be ideal.
- Curt Maggitt (Off-the-ball LB/Hired gun rusher): One of the best players in the country happens to also be its most versatile. Strong-side linebacker Curt Maggitt was as advertised coming off an injury the prior season. He has sideline-to-sideline ability at his natural position (Sam), and he’s as good of a pass-rusher as you’ll find as a down lineman (led the team with 11 sacks). He may very well be the SEC’s version of Denver Broncos’ star Von Miller, who also happens to possess those very skills.
This type of explosiveness is scary for offensive linemen and offensive coordinators alike. When you factor in the talent of all-around defensive lineman Corey Vereen — who very well could be the breakout player of the unit as an in-and-out rusher who’s also good against the run — and a host of other viable talents, you can plainly see how I’ve come to such a conclusion.
Tennessee will be able to both stop the run and rush the passer, and it has an off-the-ball linebacker in Jaylen Reeves-Maybin who looks to be a budding star in his own right. Combine all of that with the talent on offense and we may very well be looking at the eastern division champs for this coming season (click here to read more on that).
And watch out when Jancek unleashes his “Nascar” package where all the pass-rushers are deployed from a two-point stance.