KNOXVILLE – Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian might be the resident math expert on UT’s football staff, but defense line coach Steve Stripling doesn’t need a complex formula to understand that the transition for his position is important.
Four is greater than three. That’s all he needs to know.
With the Vols transitioning from a 3-4 to a base 4-3 defense, the four down defensive linemen take on a bigger role.
“They’re excited about going to the 4-3,” said Stripling, who is just a few weeks removed from leading Cincinnati to a 48-34 win over Duke in the Belk Bowl as the interim head coach of the Bearcats. “Obviously as a defensive lineman, they’re a very important part of it. We’ll have to see if there are position moves or how young men fit in, but everybody is ready to go.”
Perhaps no other position group on the team has seen more transition than has the defensive front. Stripling is its fifth position coach in the last five seasons. It’s gone from the 4-3 to the 3-4 and now back to the 4-3. Players have shifted from tackle to end and from end to linebacker, depending on the scheme.
The latest curveball came from Darrington Sentimore, who became an unlikely one-and-done player after spending just a single year in Knoxville after transferring in from junior college. Freshmen Omari Phillips and Trent Taylor also decided to not return this semester. That is 900 pounds of potential defensive line help that Stripling will never see.
Stripling now must take the 11 remaining scholarship defensive linemen, add a few more in recruiting, and turn it into a cohesive front four that can compete at a high level in the SEC.
“All four defensive line spots are going to be different,” said Stripling. “We’re going to basically role play, which means we’re going to put the young men in the position to be the most successful. There will be two different, distinct end positions and two different, distinct tackle positions. And we’re going to try to match our personnel now into those positions.”
The most unique piece of the puzzle will be 6-7, 360-pound defensive tackle Daniel McCullers, who Stripling said will be the biggest player he’s even coached.
McCullers, another junior college transfer, was recruited with former defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri’s 3-4 scheme in mind, but the rising senior decided to stay around for a second season instead of attempting an early entry into the NFL Draft.
“I’m looking forward to working with him,” Stripling said of his largest pupil. “Big Dan has the athletic ability and I think he’s going to be able to express that. We’ll find the best place for him. We’re going to find a place for him to be successful.”
McCullers won’t be the only returning player that Stripling will have to plug into a potentially new spot. There are several ‘tweeners’ who don’t fit perfectly well as a 4-3 tackle or end. Marlon Walls (6-2, 285) and Trevarris Saulsberry (6-4, 285) are examples of a player who might be somewhat of a round peg needing to go in a square hole.
There will be transition between linebackers and defensive ends as well. Ooltewah native Jacques Smith is listed as a defense end on the updated spring roster after playing outside linebacker in the 4-3. The same is true for Jordan Williams. Others, such as linebacker LaTroy Lewis, could be a fit at end or linebacker as well.
“We’re going to have to see where the pieces fit,” Stripling said. “That’s to be determined as we finish up recruiting and get into offseason study and spring ball.. … I think playing d-line is playing d-line. There might be a little difference in technique, but we’ll get some continuity and get the kids confident in what they’re doing.”
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga