Tennessee defensive lineman Kendal Vickers said the Volunteers who left after the 2016 season set the standard. Now, it’s up to the current crop of Volunteers to meet that mark and possibly exceed it.
The Volunteers have lost four starters on defense from the past season, including first round draft pick Derek Barnett. With several questions surrounding the offense, it’s even more important for Vickers and the rest of the defense to deliver top-notch play come fall.
“Any time you lose a guy like Barnett, one of the greatest players in SEC, you’re going to have to have guys step up,” Vickers said. “We’ve just been doing everything as a collective group. We know it’s going to take a collective group to get sacks and TFLs and just be productive in the backfield. Guys are ready to work.”
Defensive back Emmanuel Moseley, who recorded 57 tackles in his junior season, made it readily apparent the returning players understand the departed players can’t be relied on to make the plays anymore.
“They’re off and gone to the NFL,” Moseley said. “What they did was pass the torch down. We’ve got to fill those roles.”
Multiple injury issues in 2016 may ultimately prove beneficial for the Volunteers this season. Because several key players missed action, others who had been backups were tasked with filling the void.
There were certainly hiccups along the way, but those opportunities mean more experience will be on the field this time around.
“We built chemistry with the people (who stepped in),” Moseley said. “I wouldn’t wish (those injuries) on them, but it was helpful.”
The return of defensive coordinator Bob Shoop may help soften the losses. Shoop, who came over from Penn State after the 2015 season, is considered one of the top defensive coordinators in the conference. His first season running the defense included unavoidable growing pains of a new coach settling in with unfamiliar players.
This time around, everyone involved knows what to expect.
“Anytime you can spend more time with a coach, it’s always helpful,” Vickers said. “You know what they want to run and how they want to run it. Just to be with him in the offseason has been great. We know where his head’s at, and we know what we want to do as a D-line.”
Tennessee head coach Butch Jones pointed toward the defensive line as position group that needs to pick up the slack left by others. He mentioned Jonathan Kongbo, Darrell Taylor and Shy Tuttle, saying their chemistry within the defense will likely prove fruitful once the season starts.
Vickers and the returning defenders know they have to step up in order for Tennessee to be just as productive as it was before. To that point, Vickers explained he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We have to work every day to meet that standard and exceed it,” Vickers said. “Just having that to work toward, it makes everything fun. We just can’t wait to get started.”
Jordan D. Hill: 770-894-9818, @lesports