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Tennessee Football: Vols DL still very much a work in progress

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Tennessee did its best with a patchwork group of defensive linemen last season. The Vols lost some production from 2022 that they’ll have to replace, however, there may be more depth and stability on the defensive front than there was this time last year.

First, no one knew that EDGE rusher Byron Young would turn into such a productive player before the 2022 season. He was raw and unproven. The same could be said for LaTrell Bumphus, who was certainly a strong contributor in 2022. Now they’re both gone. That leaves a new group of defensive lineman for Tennessee’s coaches to mold and have ready to play by this fall. That started last week when spring practice began.

The Vols have a proven commodity in Tyler Baron, who has started eight games during his career, logged 69 tackles, 16 1/2 for a loss and 7 1/2 sacks. Baron could be on the verge of a breakout year.

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Sophomore Joshua Josephs showed tremendous flashes of ability in his freshman season in 2022. With his long, rangy arms and 6-foot-3 frame, he should prove tough to deal with now that he has another season under his belt.

The Vols will also expect more out of James Pearce Jr., who will be sophomore this season. Maturity has been an issue with Pearce.

“I’ve seen some growth out of James. He’s maturing a lot on and off the field,” defensive line coach Rodney Garner said. “He has to continue to do that. He has to keep moving the needle in the right direction. He has a lot of potential, but he has to make sure that he’s invested enough in it to get what he wants out of this. That’s what it has to take.”

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Highlights from Vols’ first spring practice in full pads of 2023

The Vols have also been impressed by Caleb Herring. Just a junior, Herring has the size, 6-5 and 226, to have an early impact this fall.

“I think he is going to be a really good player,” Garner said. “I’m really excited about him. I think he really loves football. I think he’s tough, has the length and has the skill set. I think he has a bright future. I think it’s important to him.”

When it comes to a big interior defensive lineman, the Vols have Omari Thomas, a senior who has already proven he can play in college and could have a breakout season if he continues development. However, he’ll need help. That’s why the Vols went after Omari Norman-Lott, who transferred from Arizona State during the offseason in order to take part in spring camp.

“He is a powerful, quick-twitched guy,” Garner said. “He has to learn to strain and play the way we want to play. I think (his previous school) was doing more mirror step on the line of scrimmage, where we want to be more vertical, create knock-back, all that. I think the kid has some natural stuff and that he can help us on the defensive side of the ball.”

The incomers have done well to this point, but the Vols still need more. Much more.

“We have to keep working and you hope you start to have some separation,” Garner said. “From where they’re all right there together, we need some people to start pulling away.”

For that to happen, the Vols also need more leadership to develop on the defensive line. So far, the Vols are in short supply in that department. Losing Young and Bumphus will do that.

“That’s something we’re still trying to cultivate,” Garner said. “We have some good young men in that room. I can’t say that (leadership is) probably a strong suit. Omari Thomas, he’s going to do everything the right way, but is he willing to grab the bull by the horns and snatch a knot when that isn’t really his personality? 

“He does it by example, but we still need him to grow and become an even better leader. We still need for some other leaders to come on. You don’t have to be a senior to be a leader. You can be a young guy and be a leader. It’s just about you doing things the right way, and people know you’re doing it the right way, and they’re willing to listen and adhere to what you’re saying.”

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