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 conclude the series as we examine the Vols’ defensive ends.
Perhaps the deepest position on the Tennessee Volunteers defense is defensive end. Tennessee returns two of the best ends in the nation, as well as four experienced lettermen. To add to the wealth, the Volunteers added three highly touted true freshmen.
It all starts with sophomore Derek Barnett and senior Curt Maggitt. Barnett broke Jadeveon Clowney’s SEC freshman sack record in 2014, and was a consensus Freshman All-American. Going into 2015, Barnett is thought of as one of the top ends in the country. Pro Football Focus rated Barnett as the third best player in the SEC and the top edge run defender in the conference going into 2015. Barnett also added 47 pressures while rushing the passer, which was second of all freshmen.
As a pass rusher, no one could contain Barnett in 2014, despite the fact that he took on NFL caliber left tackles on a regular basis. Barnett faced off with two offensive tackles who were first round NFL picks (Iowa’s Brandon Scherff and Florida’s D.J. Humphries), a sixth-rounder (Oklahoma’s Tyrus Thompson) and a seventh-rounder (South Carolina’s Corey Robinson). Not to mention two players expected to be picked near the top of the draft in the future, Alabama’s Cam Robinson and Ole Miss’ Laremy Tunsil. Barnett didn’t just pad stats against the weaker opponents. Against those six players, he had 11.5 TFLs and six sacks.
Barnett is a special player because he has both the athleticism to rush around the edge and the strength to overpower a blocker on his path to the passer. Barnett has good technique, using his hands to defeat blockers.
Here are some clips showing him rushing around the edge.
And here he is taking on a block and still getting to the passer.
As a run defender, Barnett was a force. His strength and good technique allows him to use his hands to fight off blockers and get to the ball carrier. Barnett finished fifth on the team with 72 tackles and tied for the conference lead with 1.6 tackles for loss per game. Pro Football Focus ranked Barnett as the best run defender of all edge defenders in the nation going into the 2015 season.
Here you can see him shedding blocks to make stops in the backfield. In the first clip, Barnett wins, but is pretty clearly held as he chases the runner, and is still able to make the play.
While Barnett has plenty of strength, he is also a pretty athletic player. Here, he is the read defender for Ole Miss. Barnett is able to give quarterback Bo Wallace a keep read by squeezing down to take on the back, but has the athleticism to recover and tackle Wallace for a loss anyways.
The scary thing is that Barnett was just a true freshman last year. He has an incredible year, but should continue to improve as he gains more experience.
Playing on the opposite side, Maggitt is equally as talented at putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Maggitt finished the season with 11 sacks (one more than Barnett). While Barnett gets more attention, Maggitt is the heart and soul of the Tennessee defense and is a force in his own right. The senior is the Vols’ starting Sam linebacker and plays there when the Vols are in their base 4-3. However, anytime Tennessee faces a spread formation (which is roughly 75% of the time) Maggitt moves down to left end in the 4-2-5 nickel. This is where his talent is best utilized as he is able to show off his pass rushing skills.
Where Maggitt jumps off the page is as a speed rusher. Often, he was able to get off the ball faster than the opposing tackle and get around the edge to the quarterback before the play could develop. Here are some clips showing off his exceptional athleticism and his first step.
Maggitt also has a nice variety of counter moves to get back inside when a tackle is over aggressive in getting wide to defend the speed rush. In the first clip, he swims inside but is held. His rush still forces a bad throw and an interception. In the second clip, Maggitt spins inside and forces the quarterback to vacate the pocket and throw inaccurately on a key third down play.
The beauty of the Vols’ end combo is that Maggitt and Barnett make each other better. With a great pass rusher on each side, it is very difficult for offenses to double team both players. This always leaves the Vols with at least one one-on-one matchup, and defensive line coach Steve Stripling likes his star ends’ chances versus most tackles. Even when one pass rusher can’t get all the way, the other can be there to help.
Here, Maggitt forces South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson to step up in the pocket, right into the awaiting Barnett for the sack.
Maggitt isn’t far behind Barnett as a run defender. He finished third out of all returning edge defenders as a run stopper and is equally as talented at getting off blocks. You can read more about Maggitt in the run game in our linebacker preview here.
One of the more underrated players on the Volunteers’ defense is senior Chris Weatherd. Coming from Trinity Valley Community College, Weatherd joined the Vols in the fall of 2014. He enrolled right before fall camp and was not able to get acclimated like the other newcomers, but his talent was impossible to miss. Defensive coordinator John Jancek created a package specifically designed to get Weatherd on the field. Although he never played in the base 4-3 or 4-2-5, Weatherd often came on the field as part of the 3-3-5 pass rushing package as the third linebacker. Weatherd would line up all over the field, often rushing the passer from outside the tackle, but just as often lining up over a guard. Weatherd was also Jancek’s best answer to running quarterbacks, as he often was used as a spy. Weatherd’s versatility as the extra pass rusher gave Jancek the freedom to show multiple fronts and design creative blitz packages.
Weatherd has an incredible first step and great athleticism for an end. He only recorded 2.5 sacks on the year, but consistently made an impact on the game.
Here is a clip of him getting a great pass rush to force an incompletion against Iowa. Weatherd was able to defeat Brandon Scherff (5th Overall Pick in the 2015 NFL Draft) on the play.
Going into 2015, Weatherd is spending more time at defensive end than at linebacker and hopes to see more time with the base defense. Weatherd is just as, if not more, talented as any pass rusher on the roster (which is saying something). He has the potential to be a key piece of the defense again in 2015 as a pass rushing specialist.
Also returning is junior Corey Vereen. Ever since joining the Vols, Vereen has been known as one of the hardest workers on the team. Vereen frequently started when the Vols were in the 4-3 and Maggitt was at linebacker, while he rotated with the other ends when Tennessee went to their nickel package. He was a key part of the Volunteers run defense, often playing on early downs. He finished ranked ninth in Prop Football Focus’s run defense rankings of all edge defenders.
As a pass rusher, Vereen is a talented player who was often one step away from a sack or a big play. While the stats may not show it (only 1.5 sacks), Vereen is an underrated pass rusher. He is a player for the Volunteers who often made important, underappreciated plays, and he will continue to be a key part of the rotation in 2015.
Another solid defender is junior LaTroy Lewis. Unfortunately, Lewis has been held out for most of fall camp because of a knee injury, but he played a key role as a reserve in 2014. In limited playing time, Lewis flashed talent, often making stops in the run game. Similar to Vereen, Lewis often was on the field for run downs. If he can return to health, Lewis will be another experienced option for the Vols at end.
Adding to the depth at end is sophomore Dimarya Mixon. As the backup 3 technique defensive tackle in 2014, Mixon appeared in 12 of 13 games. Now he is slimmed down to 259 lbs. (from 282 lbs. in 2014) and is looking like a good fit on the edge. Based on reports out of fall camp, Mixon has improved a lot and is looking very comfortable at end. He will push for playing time as a reserve.
True freshman Kyle Phillips is turning heads in fall camp and will see playing time in 2015. Phillips is listed at 6’4, 259 lbs, but may be the fastest lineman on the roster. Teammates have raved about his speed since his addition to the team. Phillips came in listed as the number 36 recruit in the country by 247Sports, and he’s lived up to expectations so far. Phillips was compared to Barnett by defensive line coach Steve Stripling. He’s an athletic freak who still needs work on his technique, but will see the field and make an impact because of his great talent. Phillips will be a huge part of the defense for years to come in Knoxville.
Adding to the depth is fellow true freshmen Andrew Butcher and Darrell Taylor. Both were 4 star recruits who have a bright future in store, but might struggle to get playing time this fall over the Vols experienced depth.
Barnett and Maggitt may be the best returning pass rushing duo in the conference, if not the nation. They anchor a group that finished third in the SEC in sacks last season, and will have plenty of help from Weatherd, Vereen, Phillips, and the rest in 2015. There is no reason to think that Tennessee won’t be even better at getting after the quarterback this season. The Vols also have some of the best run stopping edge defenders in the nation, with Barnett, Maggitt, and Vereen all finishing at the top of the Pro Football Focus rankings.
Barnett and Maggitt will start for the Volunteers and continue to wreak havoc in opposing backfields, while Weatherd, Vereen, and Phillips have too much talent not to get on the field as reserves. Mixon has shown a lot of improvement, Lewis is the steady veteran, and Butcher and Taylor represent the future.. The only thing certain is that Stripling and defensive coordinator John Jancek will have their hands full trying to find playing time for all of their talented ends. It has been reported that Tennessee has tested out a “Rabbit” package that puts four ends in the lineup for pass rushing purposes. This is likely the deepest position on the roster and one of the best groups of edge defenders in the nation.
Thanks for reading this preview of the Volunteers’ defense headed into the 2015 season. Be on the lookout for a preview of the Vols’ week one opponent, Bowling Green, next week.