Tennessee football has numerous questions entering a new era. But the Volunteers pass rush could be the college version of the 2015 Denver Broncos.
You can question how difficult the transition to a 3-4 defense will be for Tennessee football. It’a also fair to wonder about the transition to a pro-style offense and who will win the quarterback battle. Simply put, Jeremy Pruitt’s first team is bound to struggle in numerous ways as he inherits a team that was 4-8 last year and 0-8 in the SEC.
But there is one MAJOR bright spot. It revolves around the outside rushers. In switching up the defense, Pruitt moved Darrell Taylor and Jonathan Kongbo to outside linebacker. Both guys were solid last year, and they were once a four-star and five-star respectively in recruiting. Pruitt also added four-star junior college edge rusher Jordan Allen for an amazing rotation out there.
Up front, defensive end Kyle Phillips was once a five-star and has a ton of potential in his role. He doesn’t have the right size at nose tackle, and that is indeed a concern, but Tracy Rocker is working with guys who have talent in Shy Tuttle and Alexis Johnson. Both were once four-star recruits. Their backups are newcomers Greg Emerson and Emmit Gooden. Both guys are four-star recruits as well, and Gooden is a junior college transfer.
Are you noticing something here? If you look at production and the potential based on recruiting rankings, the Vols are absolutely loaded with talent to have a proper pass rush. In fact, they could remind you of the 2015 Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. Remember that team? They carried former Vol Peyton Manning to a title his final season, so many on Rocky Top do.
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Let’s just compare players. With the switches, Taylor could be Von Miller on one side, while Kongbo could be DeMarcus Ware. In fact, Taylor and Miller are roughly the same size who were primarily ends before making the switch. Kongbo and Ware are both strong-side defensive ends in traditional 4-3 schemes.
Up front, Phillips could mirror Derek Wolfe, the true ends on the line for UT and Denver respectively. Meanwhile, Alexis Johnson, the other defensive tackle on the line, could mirror former Vol Malik Jackson.
Together, the Denver guys all came together to form arguably the best pass rush in NFL history. Now, the Vols are missing one big piece. Tuttle, while being a good defensive tackle, doesn’t have the size to be a cog at nose tackle the way Sylvester Williams was. But you could move Johnson to the inside for that if necessary.
Simply put, Tennessee football largely has the pieces for a dominant pass rush. They may not have much else on defense. But if Darrin Kirkland Jr. can stay healthy, he has a photographic memory, so he should have an easy transition to the 3-4 defense that other inside linebackers don’t have. If that’s the case, then the Vols will have five of their front seven set with no issues.
That’s a dream scenario and gives Kevin Sherrer a ton to work with starting out. We know how bad the pass defense is likely to be. Stopping the run up the middle could be a problem as well. But the one saving grace for the Vols could be an amazing pass rush.
Looking at the current personnel and the position changes, it’s going to be what makes or breaks the Vols defense. If Kongbo and Taylor can be historically great on the outside, Tennessee football may be able to offset what will be a bad secondary. The Vols won’t be the college version of the Broncos anywhere else on defense. But this specific aspect indeed could be just that. And it’s what the coaches will need if they want to surprise people.