This week, we’re taking a team-by-team look at what the biggest offseason needs are for every team in the SEC. Here, we take a look at Tennessee.
Position: Defensive end
Breakdown: Losing three of the four players on your two-deep at a position isn’t easy to deal with. It’s even harder when one of those departing players is as good as Barnett was at Tennessee.
No player in college football had more sacks over the past three seasons than Barnett (32.5), but he’s a likely first-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft, so it was a wise decision for him to leave. Vereen and Lewis, meanwhile, were both seniors. Vereen started 11 games (played in all 13); Lewis started four (played in 12), so that’s a lot of experience gone.
Kongbo, the No. 1 junior college defensive end in the 2016 class, came in and played in all 13 games, finishing with three tackles for loss, a sack and a 59-yard interception return for a touchdown against Missouri. He’s an intriguing talent and a raw one who has plenty of potential. It didn’t turn into production last season, but the Vols will have to hope it does in 2017.
Phillips spent part of last season playing defensive tackle because of injuries and depth issues at the position (Kongbo did, too, late in the season). Phillips was recruited as a defensive end and was ranked ninth at the position in the 2015 class. Should he move back to end, he’s a definite candidate to start, and the Vols could well put a duo of Kongbo and Phillips out there with their first-team defensive line.
Mixon played in 12 games as a reserve (he missed the Music City Bowl because he was suspended for disciplinary reasons), but he could also be in the mix in his senior season. Darrell Taylor, who played in eight games as a redshirt freshman, will also compete for time.
The Vols’ 2017 recruiting class also has several prospects that could wind up at defensive end. Bumphus is a 6-foot-4, 230-pound athlete who is ranked 263rd in the ESPN 300. He’s a player who could play offense or defense but certainly has the ability to play defensive end. Johnson, Butler and Thaxton are all three-star defensive-line prospects; Johnson -- a Miami product -- is already enrolled which gives him a leg up on fighting for playing time in 2017.