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Tennessee Football: Omari Thomas has become the heart of the Vols’ defense

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Typically, your leader on defense is a linebacker or a safety. You don’t expect a defensive tackle to be the heart of the unit unless he’s a generational talent the way John Henderson was for Tennessee Football nearly 25 years ago.

However, UT defensive lineman Omari Thomas is a bit of a unicorn. Thomas is a solid, productive player. He’s not on the level of Henderson. On the other hand, the 6’4″ 320-pound Memphis veteran is who the entire unit looks to on that side of the ball.

Thomas’ decision to return to Tennessee Football for his super senior season, taking advantage of the COVID eligibility ruling, was as big of a deal for the Vols as Cooper Mays’ return was offensively. They are similar in that they are both leaders who anchor their units from the middle on the line of scrimmage.

Amidst all the talk of Josh Heupel’s high-powered offense, the trenches is actually where the Vols will have an advantage. Rodney Garner and Tim Banks have done an amazing job with the defensive line, but it all starts with what Thomas is able to bring to the table.

Despite not being the most seasoned starter on the team last year, the coaches chose Thomas to represent Rocky Top at SEC Media Days. His maturity, work ethic and yes, abilities, all played a role in that. While UT likes to run deep on the line, Thomas is the most important part.

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Last year, Thomas had four and a half tackles for a loss and a pass deflection. He also had 35 total tackles, 19 of which were solo. Three seasons ago, he forced four fumbles, and in 2021 and 2022, he had four pass deflections. Simply put, he’s produced for the Vols on the regular.

Garner will turn to him, Bryson Eason, Elijah Simmons and Omarr Norman-Lott to all make an impact. They have to get the push to turn guys like James Pearce Jr. loose, and they have to stop the run. Making up for a lousy secondary has also been a key for this unit the past two years.

Nevertheless, Thomas has gone about his business. He may not be a generational defensive tackle, but he’s a solid player and a generational teammate. His understanding of the system and what Tennessee Football needs will make him the centerpiece of that defense…literally.

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