The Defensive Line: Now a Nose and Two Ears

John Palermo, Tennessee’s new defensive line coach, is a man with a wealth of experience, with coaching stints at places including the Washington Redskins in the NFL and college stops Wisconsin, NC State, Austin Peay, Minnesota, Memphis, Appalachian State, Notre Dame, Miami, Tennessee Tech, and most recently Middle Tennessee State. He takes over a DL that has seen steady improvement over Dooley’s first season in Knoxville (“Year Zero”). It doesn’t look championship quality yet, but the DL should improve over last season’s sack total as well as being a more aggressive unit under Sunseri’s leadership. And, it looks to be physically bigger as well.

Last season, the Tennessee defensive line was left with an inexperienced corps due to the loss of three starters, leaving only Ben Martin. Their performance was less than satisfactory, giving up 163 rushing yards per game (69th in the nation) and tallying only 15 sacks (107th nationally) compared with 26 the previous year. This season’s DL is minus First Team All-SEC DL Malik Jackson and Martin due to graduation. But four of last season’s top six DLs in minutes played are back for 2012, three of which started four or more games. The end result is that this season’s DL is the most experienced corps seen in a while – a welcome thing to actually be able to write.

The Ends

Early on, junior JUCO transfer Maurice “Mo” Couch (#44) looked to be the starter at nose-tackle in the new 3-4 scheme, but finds himself at DE, at least for now. Opposite Couch will likely be Darrington Sentimore (#94), a JUCO transfer who also played as a redshirt freshman for national champion Alabama a couple of years back. Don’t be surprised if Sentimore becomes “the” star for the DE corps before the season is done. Juniors Jacques Smith (#55) and Marlon Walls (#58) return from last season when they were starters, but Smith is likely slated to start as an outside linebacker. Sophomore Jordan Williams (#54) may also find himself in the rotation, with junior Trevarris Saulsberry (#96) being a bit of a long shot. Saulsberry may also find himself as being considered for the middle. Let’s not forget junior Corey Miller (#80) who has bounced back from academic problems for a second chance. And then there is Senior Steven Fowlkes (#90) who could surprisingly gain some playing time based on his performances in spring practices.

The Nose

In the middle figures to be a battle for minutes. JUCO transfer Daniel “Shade Tree” McCullers (#98) looks to be the anointed early starter at nose tackle. Daniel Hood (#76) is trying to shake the injury bug and is presently on the second team. So McCullers, who also played previously for Alabama, is the flavor of the moment. He is a prize catch for Dooley at 360+ pounds of pure nose-guard nastiness. But academics are his biggest challenge next to his weight and lateral mobility. Sophomore Gregory Clark (#93), perhaps a perfect nose-tackle based on size and athleticism, figures to add minutes in spells. Another sophomore, Allan Carson (#69) is also on the NT watch list. New freshman Danny O’Brian (#95) is also a recruiting prize – a native of Michigan who picked Tennessee over Michigan, Michigan State and Alabama. More stories like that will eventually pave the road to future glory. Freshman Trent Taylor (#99) is another, having decommitted from Miami. Taylor is on the small size for the nose, but is incredibly athletic and mobile. Freshman Omarl Phillips (#50) is also a roster entry.

The Last Word

Finally, for what seems to have been many years, Tennessee has a DL corps with a strong semblance of depth with a future. It remains to be seen if they can serve the dual purpose of increasing their sacks total and being able to provide early containment against the strong running teams they will face this season in conference play. One thing is for sure: a three-man line made up of Couch, McCullers and Sentimore would weigh an average of 315 pounds, a significant improvement in size in an already heavy SEC. However I would look for a revolving door to be installed to the entrance of the defensive line as Sunseri and Palermo look for the right combinations for the beast that will be the schedule in October.

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