Tennessee football position preview: Defensive line will be deep, but very inexperienced

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The sixth in a series of position-by-position reviews of the Tennessee football team with an eye toward the start of spring practice in March.

Jordan Williams will be the most experienced returning player on the defensive line (photo by Evan Woodbery)

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Tennessee is losing six seniors who accounted for roughly 70 percent of the team’s snaps on its defensive line.

Some of the team’s most visible leaders are included among that group.

But while the outlook for 2014 is challenging, it’s not entirely hopeless. A large crop of newcomers will be pushed to compete for playing time immediately. Just as important, a group of inexperienced returning players will be asked to seize a fresh opportunity for playing time.

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Among the departing players, Daniel Hood and Daniel McCullers might be among the most difficult to immediately replace. Big tackles usually don’t just arrive on campus. They are grown and develop over time. 

Jacques Smith, Corey Miller and Marlon Walls also capped their careers with solid senior seasons in 2013.

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There may not be a position on the 2014 team more difficult to project than the defensive line. Some new arrivals will instantly wow coaches and be slotted for playing time (see Corey Vereen). Others will be fitted for redshirts or reserve roles (see everybody else). 

If all the verbal commitments arrive as planned, there will be no shortage of competition, with as many as 18 scholarship linemen. (Charles Mosley could end up on the offensive line, but I’m putting him here for now). But the interior tackle spot remains the biggest concern.

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Danny O’Brien helps Marlon Walls (58) with a sack at Oregon. (KNS photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess)

This is a huge spring for Danny O’Brien and Gregory Clark. Another tackle, Trevarris Saulsberry, will likely miss the spring due to injury. Jason Carr also needs to have a big offseason in the weight room and a big spring to push into the playing rotation.

As difficult as it is to project 2014, it’s essentially impossible to predict 2015, 2016 and 2017. The redshirts are just guesses. Owen Williams, as a junior college player, an early arrival and a tackle, could have the clearest path to quick playing time. But jucos are never sure bets. Allan Carson was praised by teammates for his scout team work but is not in position to contribute and could be a candidate to move on at some point.

At ends, Jordan Williams and Corey Vereen seem to be the most likely starters. Williams has bulked up so he can play a role on the inside of the line — and maybe not just on passing downs. LaTroy Lewis risks getting passed this spring if he doesn’t make a move. The crop of redshirt freshmen and new arrivals will fight to distinguish themselves in what could be a very crowded August camp.

Carr and Jaylen Miller may apply for medical hardship waivers to earn back their year of eligibility from 2013. Until that becomes official, I’m listing them as sophomores.

A note on this series: As National Signing Day approaches, we’ll review each of Tennessee’s positions with an eye toward spring football in 2014. I’ll update the spreadsheets as players commit, sign, enroll or leave. Click on the links for previews of the offensive linerunning backsreceiversquarterbacks and tight ends.

A note on the statistics: The snap count shown in the first graphic includes only offensive snaps. It does not count special teams. The statistics are unofficial and come from our snap-by-snap database. “YPP” is yards per play, or simply the number of yards Tennessee gained while the player was on the field, divided by the player’s total snaps. “Adjusted YPP” adjusts the average for various factors, including game, situation, formation, down, distance and position. “Impact factor” is the degree to which a player’s adjusted YPP outperformed the average. A factor of 100 is average; above that is better, lower is worse. You should view Adjusted YPP and Impact Factor as “interesting” stats and not necessarily relevant ones. Someone who plays every snap will, by definition, have an Impact Factor of 100. On the other end, the small sample size of many reserves means just one or two plays can significantly shift their score.