N.C. State-Tennessee Preview #6: Let's Keep this on the DL (part 1)

In our previous positional breakdown of the Pack-Vols Chic-Fil-A Kickoff Classic, we looked at the teams' respective offensive lines. So, naturally, the next preview takes us across the trenches to the defensive line, an area where both teams have a lot of questions marks. In the first of this two-part preview within a series of previews, the focus is on the interior of the defensive line.

The main question mark for UT is exactly how many linemen will put a hand on the ground in Sal Sunseri's new defensive scheme. The former Bama LB coach has expressed a desire to move to a 3-4, but after spring practice the Vols still had a 4-3 alignment on their depth chart. Odds are that the Pack will see the Vols line up in a variety of looks on August 31st.

A move to a 3-4 would help UT's issue with lack of experienced depth along the interior line. The Vols lost undersized playmaker-and really their only interior playmaker-Malik Jackson to the NFL. Jackson led the Vols with 11 tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks a year ago despite playing tackle at 267 pounds. The Broncos plan on shifting him to end.

The most experienced of the inexperienced candidates to play a tackle spot, whether it be DT or NT, are Maurice Couch (6-2, 295 RS JR) and Daniel Hood (6-4, 293 RS JR). Couch made 4 starts a year ago, notching 6 tackles for a loss and 1.5 QB sacks. Hood, an OL convert, was remarkably unproductive in 12 games (including 8 starts), tallying just 8 tackles. Marlon Walls (6-2, 283), another RS JR, played in 12 games a year ago, notching 4 tackles for a loss and 1 sack, but he is not currently listed on the depth chart.

Neither Couch nor Hood have exceptional size for a tackle, especially a nose tackle, but they dwarf Steven Fowlkes (6-5, 254 RS SR), who saw no action last year, has one career tackle, but is currently listed on the depth chart at DT. Another starting candidate is Darrington Sentimore (6-3, 288 RS JR), a JUCO transfer who notched 7 sacks as a sophomore at Gulf Coast Community College and was a 4-star recruit out of high school. The fifth Vol listed on the DT depth chart is RS SO Gregory Clark (6-2, 318). Clark is the one guy on the list with prototypical DT size, but he appeared in just 1 game as a RS FR.

It's safe to say that none of the guys on this list will be unanimous preseason all-SEC selections, but there could be help on the way, especially if UT does go to a 3-4, in blocker-occupier Daniel McCullers, who comes to Knoxville via the Pack pipeline of Georgia Military Academy. McCullers, a mountain at 6-6, 380, totaled 9 tackles for a loss and 2 sacks at the JUCO level and may push his way onto the depth chart once preseason workouts begin. Danny O'Brien (6-2, 310), a 4-star recruit, may also be able to provide instant impact if he does not redshirt.

The closest thing the Vols have to an experienced starter is the underwhelming Hood, but the sheer number of candidates above at least gives them the potential to shore up what was last year's 69th ranked run defense, especially if they only need to fill one spot in a 3-4 front. A move to the 3-4 would also allow for more creative blitz packages, perhaps helping the Vols' anemic pass rush that ranked 107th in the nation with just 15 sacks a year ago.

Unlike the Vols, the Pack got pressure from up the middle (and all angles) a year ago, ranking 9th nationally with just over 3 sacks a game. A total of 7 Pack pass rushers eclipsed Malik Jackson's Vol-leading 2.5 sacks last year, but 3 of those guys have moved on to the NFL, including Giants' 7th-round pick Markus Kuhn. Kuhn, the second German-born player ever drafted, posted 4.5 sacks, 9.5 tackles for a loss, and blocked a kick in his senior campaign. J. R. Sweezy, Kuhn's partner in crime on and off the field, also moved on to the NFL. Sweezy's production suffered due to a string of #ncstateshit during his senior season, but he still posted a pair of sacks and 4 tackles for a loss. The Seahawks, who selected him in the 7th round, plan to try him at offensive guard. (Linebackers Terrell Manning and Audie Cole, with their 5.5 sacks apiece, also moved on to The League).

Thanks in large part to Sweezy's and several of his linemates' injury-riddled-ness, switching sides of the ball was a theme for the Pack last season, as Wayne Crawford seemed to switch from the OL to the DL on a weekly basis, fullback Taylor Gentry took a brief turn on the D-line, and walk-on Jacob Kahut saw far too much time on the field. Unfortunately, the Pack is just an injury or two away from suffering the same plight in 2012.

Youngsters Thomas Teal (6-2, 315 RS SO) and T. Y. McGill (6-1, 290 SO), who had to burn his redshirt season due to the injury parade along the line last year, will anchor the Pack interior. Teal showed the ability to get in the backfield at times as a freshman, recording 1.5 sacks and 2 tackles for a loss. Like most true freshmen, McGill looked lost at times a year ago, but getting thrown into the fire as freshmen worked out pretty well for the secondary in time, so hopefully McGill's experience pays off in year two. He did make 21 stops, which is actually a pretty high number for a reserve interior lineman, so he either has the potential to get off blocks and chase the ball or opposing offenses were trying to pick on him a year ago.

A.J. Ferguson (6-3, 281 JR), a junior who also never got to redshirt due to depth issues, returns after recording 1 sack last year to be the top reserve on the interior. JUCO junior Deylan Buntyn (6-4, 330), a top 25 JUCO prospect according to Rivals, will also be counted on to make an immediate impact. And that's about it. The only other players listed on the depth chart are Kahut and undersized RS FR Dave Mann (6-3, 249), whose true position is DE, but Carlos Gray (6-4, 321 RS FR) and prized recruit K'Hadree Hooker (6-2, 285 FR) could fill in if needed, though I am sure the staff would prefer to redshirt Hooker.

Things are not quite as thin as they seem, however, as projected starting ends Brian Slay (6-3, 274 SR) and Darryl Cato-Bishop (6-4, 278 RS JR) both have experience playing inside. Expect Slay or Cato-Bishop to replace one of the interior linemen in obvious passing situations, while Art Norman comes on to rush from the edge. Cato-Bishop and Norman tied Manning and Cole for the team lead with 5.5 sacks for the sack-happy Pack last year, and Slay added 4 more.

With a pair of picks moving on to the NFL compared to one for UT, State lost more talent up front, and the Pack appears to have less depth to rotate through more spots (if UT indeed features a 3-4), but neither team has a proven, veteran presence to anchor the interior. Like so many of the previous position previews, there is no clear winner here, but I will give the Pack a slight edge due to the versatility and experience of ends Slay and Cato-Bishop, who can help out inside.

Next, we'll take a look at a position of much greater depth for both clubs: defensive end.

In the meantime, take a look back at previous entries in the preview series.

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