With Darrell Taylor suspended indefinitely, Tennessee’s already-perilously thin defensive end depth will be really challenged over the next few weeks, starting Saturday against South Carolina (noon, ESPN).
Former five-star recruit Kyle Phillips will make his first start this season against the Gamecocks (4-2), but the Vols (3-2) will also be forced to a rely on a pair of little-used freshmen as key reserves.
“What’s the mother do with the little baby when they’re teaching them to swim?” defensive coordinator Bob Shoop joked rhetorically.
“Just throw them in, man.”
Them are Deandre Johnson and Matthew Butler. The two rookies have both played sparingly this season, with Johnson seeing the most action in the win over Indiana State in Week 2. Shoop said the plan against the Gamecocks is to start Phillips and Jonathan Kongbo, “and then ride from there.”
On the season, Johnson has 2.0 tackles for loss, one sack and two forced fumbles in limited work, while Butler has two career tackles in just two games this year.
“To me, it’s a next-man-up mentality,” Shoop said.
“It’s an opportunity. I’m really looking forward to it. Deandre has played. He’s been in the rotation throughout the course of the year, so I’m not too concerned with him.”
That’s not exactly the case for Butler, a Garner, N.C., native who spent much of training camp practicing at defensive tackle. The 6-foot-4, 274-pound freshman drew rave reviews during the preseason for his work ethic, but Butler remains a perfectionist who gets himself into trouble at times being too concerned with small mistakes.
“Matt, he’s very diligent,” Shoop explained. “He’s a hard worker. Probably his best quality is also his worst quality in that he’s very, very hard on himself. Every mistake is the end of the world. I’m really looking forward to seeing him play, and I’ll be a great experience against a really good South Carolina team."
Meanwhile, Shoop plans to experiment some with hybrid linebacker Austin Smith as a defensive end in certainly personnel packages this Saturday. In the last two games, the Vols have utilized Phillips as a pass-rushing defensive tackle in their rabbits package, and even with Taylor’s suspension, the junior appears set to still slide inside on certain situations — with Smith filling the role as the extra outside pass rusher.
“On passing downs, you may see some creativity,” Shoop said. “We just want to get good guys on the field who can rush the quarterback.”
After missing last season with a shoulder injury, Smith as yet to play in 2017. The redshirt sophomore was positioned to start at strong-side linebacker in the opener against Georgia Tech, but a preseason knee injury has kept Smith sidelined for the first five games this year. However, the bye week allowed Smith to continue to get healthy and position himself for potential snaps this weekend.
“He’s ready to go,” Shoop said. “It was good seeing him back for the bye week. Obviously, when you sit four or five weeks you’re a little rusty, but Austin’s got a great attitude. He’s eager to get going.”