KNOXVILLE – Tennessee opens spring practice on Saturday. It will be the first glimpse of coach Butch Jones’ initial UT squad and several positions will be up for grabs, starting in the first practice.
Nooga.com will preview each position group leading up to the first practice on March 9.
Gone: Darrington Sentimore (declared for NFL Draft); Trent Taylor (left team in January); Omari Phillips (left team in January); Willie Bohannon (graduated); Steven Fowlkes (graduated)
Returning: Daniel McCullers (SR); Marlon Walls (SR); Daniel Hood (SR); Jacques Smith (SR); Maurice Couch (SR); Jordan Williams (JR); Greg Clark (JR); Trevarris Saulsberry (SO); Allan Carson (SO); Danny O’Brien (RS FR)
Arriving in summer: Jason Carr (4-star); Malik Brown (3-star); Jaylen Miller (3-star)
Outlook: Veteran defensive line coach Steve Stripling inherits a senior-laden group that has been under the leadership of six different position coaches in the last six years.
The move back to the 4-3 defense from the 3-4 will mean reshuffling the positions again along the defensive front.
One thing we know is that Daniel McCullers will play on the interior, likely in the “one-technique” position, meaning he’ll play in the gap between the opposing guard and center. The former 400-pound lineman has slimmed down since coming to Knoxville and could play at closer to 340 pounds next fall if his reshaping continues.
Senior Maurice Couch is a strong candidate to start at the other defensive tackle spot. Daniel Hood, Greg Clark, Danny O’Brien and Allan Carson are the other true defensive tackle body types who will provide depth inside.
Jacques Smith will likely return to defensive end after a one-year stint as an outside linebacker in the old scheme. Jordan Williams and Corey Miller will join Smith on the outside.
Also keep an eye on possible position shuffling between linebacker and defensive end. Kenny Bynum and LaTroy Lewis, a pair of redshirt freshmen who are currently listed as linebackers, may try their hand at end at some point.
Marlon Walls (6-2, 285) and Trevarris Saulsberry (6-4, 285) are examples of potential “tweeners” in the new system. They might be a little big for end, but a touch too light for tackle. That’s not to say they won’t play, but it’ll be interesting to see how they’re utilized this spring.
Quotable: Stripling on what he looks for in defensive linemen:
"We are going to look for athletic young men that can defend their gap, that can put pressure on the quarterback with a four-man rush and that have the ability to get off blocks because we know in every conference in the country that they hold. That is the kind of player that we are looking for, the playmakers."
By the numbers:
• Smith: (UT career) 37 games, 92 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 19.5 TFLs
• McCullers: (UT career) 12 games, 39 tackles, 1 sack, 5.5 TFLs
• Walls: (UT career): 31 games, 37 tackles, 1 sack, 4 TFLs
• Couch: (UT career): 24 games, 75 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 10 TFLs
• Miller: (UT career): 37 games, 46 tackles, 3 sacks, 9 TFLs
• Hood: (UT career): 30 games, 15 tackles, 1 sack, 2 TFLs
• Williams: (UT career): 19 games, 21 tackles, 3 sacks, 5 TFLs
• Saulsberry: (UT career): 4 games, 5 tackles, 1 TFL
Projected initial spring depth chart: McCullers and Couch will likely start at the two defensive tackle spots with Hood seeing plenty of time as well. It’ll be a battle at end, but Smith and Miller should get the first crack with Williams pushing them both. Walls and Saulsberry will get plenty of chances once they get settled in at a spot.
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga