In this series, we are taking a look at the talent on the Tennessee Volunteers’ roster headed into the 2015 season. The Volunteers are poised to be one of the more improved teams in the country this year, and their success or failure will be largely determined by their defense. The unit saw a lot of improvement last year, but must be even better in 2015. This post will examine the Vols’ defensive tackles, and the series will conclude with a look at the defensive ends later this week.
Up front, it starts with junior Danny O’Brien, who started 12 of 13 games for the Vols in 2014. Watching film, O’Brien stood out to me as one of the more underrated players on the team. He is not a player who stands out. He doesn’t really shoot gaps or rush the passer very well. Where O’Brien excels is using his strength and his hands to take on blocks and control offensive linemen. In the run game, O’Brien constantly held his own against double teams, freeing up linebackers to get in the backfield and make plays. When single blocked, O’Brien showed an ability to use his hands to get off blocks and make stops.
O’Brien provides the Vols with a lot of value as a 1st and 2nd down run stopper. He is a tough run defender who knows how to use his hands and occasionally flashes while pass rushing. Perhaps mostly importantly, he’s a leader on the defense. O’Brien jumped out to me on tape because he is the ultimate team player who was constantly fighting and taking on blocks so that others could make plays. However, O’Brien was able to flash every now and then and make a stand out play.
Also returning for the Vols is senior Owen Williams. In his first season with Tennessee, Williams played in 12 games and backed up O’Brien at nose tackle. Williams is in the mold of O’Brien, a big run stopping nose tackle. At 297 pounds, Williams led the entire team in the spring with 37 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press. That number would’ve tied for the lead at the 2015 NFL Combine.
Despite playing in 12 games, Williams was never really 100% healthy. He didn’t stand out much last season, but, like O’Brien, did a good job of holding off blocks and using his strength. However, his potential was clear. Williams is incredibly athletic for his size and also very strong. In the Arkansas State game, Williams wrecked havoc by splitting double teams, putting his athleticism on display, and showing off intelligence.
In his second year in the system, if Williams can stay healthy then he has the chance to have an even better year in 2015. In Williams, the Vols have a solid rotation nose tackle who has the athletic ability to be even better than that.
After spring practice, sophomore Kendal Vickers was listed as the starter at the defensive tackle spot. Vickers only played in 5 games and did not record any stats as a redshirt freshman, but he figures to be a part of the rotation. Vickers was recruited as a 225 lb. defense end, and is now up to 288 lbs. for the Vols. He has no real game experience, but the coaches have been pleased with his development. Moving inside from end, Vickers would figure to provide more of a pass rushing presence than either O’Brien or Williams. He fits the 3 technique tackle spot, which is a more athletic player than the nose tackle. As of now, Vickers is still holding down the starting spot at defensive tackle.
While the Vols do have some nice returning pieces, all the fans can focus on in Knoxville is true freshmen Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle.
McKenzie, the son of former Vol and current Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie, was rated as a 5 star and the number six overall player in the class of 2015 by 247Sports and is already making an immediate impact. McKenzie is listed at 344 lbs. and may actually be bigger than that. He is one of the strongest players on the team already and has gained national attention for overpowering Tennessee offensive linemen in one-on-one pass protection drills.
McKenzie still has work to do to get into shape; the coaches want him down in the 320-330 lbs. range. Right now the biggest concern is if he will be able to play multiple snaps in a row when opposing offenses go up-tempo. However, he has way too much talent to not be an impact player. He’ll be part of a rotation early as he gets in shape, but this monstrous lineman has the potential to be a star.
Tuttle is a stud recruit as well, ranking as the ninth best defensive tackle in the country and also a 5 star by 247. He enrolled early and participated in spring practice, giving him a conditioning advantage over McKenzie. While McKenzie gets most of the attention, Tuttle has stood out ti the coaches just as much since joining the team. This rep where he dominated senior starting left guard Marcus Jackson was as impressive of a play as the team has seen this fall.
Overall, it is safe to say that the Vols have two young stars in the making at the defensive tackle spot to go along with some solid veterans. For now, O’Brien is the only player with a secured starting spot, but Williams will play a key role as a reserve, and Vickers will get playing time. Tuttle and McKenzie figure to play a huge role and I fully expect one to be starting beside O’Brien sooner rather than later.