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Tennessee Volunteers Beef Up Offensive and Defensive Lines on National Signing Day 2016

Butch Jones

Butch Jones

Tennessee closed strong on National Signing Day, landing another crop of elite talent. The Volunteers brought in some of the nation's best skilled players, including dual-threat quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, safety Nigel Warrior, and athlete Marquez Callaway. The Vols also managed to flip Miami commits Tyler Byrd and Latrell Williams. This year, the focus was to bring in an athletic class and improve speed.

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But amidst all the new skill position talent, Tennessee also managed to upgrade its trenches. For the third year in a row under head coach Butch Jones, the Vols brought in some big-time playmakers to control the line of scrimmage, which is a must when it comes to winning in the SEC. Tennessee now has scary depth on its offensive and defensive lines.

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On offense, the Vols landed linemen Ryan Johnson, Marcus Tatum, and Nathan Niehaus. Johnson is the most college-ready of the offensive linemen, based on his size (6-7, 288). He has been committed to Tennessee for nearly two years. Johnson is rated as a 4-star player by most services. He has a strong upper body, but his best quality is his ability to pull across the line of scrimmage. He is massive and will probably make an immediate impact on Tennessee's offensive line.

Tatum and Niehaus are both mostly rated as 3-star players, partly due to being undersized. Both players check in at fewer than 260 pounds, which is relatively small for an SEC lineman. However, they share another attribute, which is essential in linemen. Both have an aggressive mean streak. They play to the whistle and drive their opponents into the ground, often laying on top of them for a couple of seconds. Most good run blockers want to physically punish their opponent. Tatum and Niehaus have big frames and will be capable of putting on weight. Once these guys get on campus and into Tennessee’s strength and conditioning program, their potential will skyrocket.

All three of Tennessee's signees on the offensive line are run blockers first, which bodes well for the future of the Vols' run-first offense.

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Defensively, the story on National Signing Day was drama. Nobody really knew throughout the day where stud JUCO defensive end Jonathan Kongbo was headed, especially when his commitment time kept changing. When he announced on Wednesday afternoon that he would be a Volunteer, it provided a sigh of relief for Tennessee's coaches and fans. Kongbo was formerly committed to the Vols, but recently opened up his recruitment. Tennessee's upgrade to Bob Shoop as defensive coordinator had a lot to do with Kongbo's decision to come to Knoxville. Kongbo is rated as the top JUCO player in the nation by some recruiting services, for good reason. He has a remarkably quick swim move, allowing him to shed offensive tackles with ease.

Also, his pursuit angles are nearly perfected. When he goes to tackle a ball carrier, he rarely misses. When Kongbo committed, Jones said "Our defense just got a lot better." Indeed.

The Vols also picked up JUCO defenisve tackle Alexis Johnson, who last played for Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College. He is rated as the No. 2 JUCO defensive tackle in the country. There aren't many guys out there who do a better job of clogging up the middle. Johnson is college-ready in terms of size (6-4, 297). His best qualities are his lower body strength and ability to stay flat down the line of scrimmage. He even picked off a pass while playing spy coverage last season.

In the past two recruiting classes, the Vols' coaching staff has focused on building the trenches. This time, its focus was on speed. But even with that, Tennessee still managed to add some physical offensive linemen and elite defensive linemen. The depth Tennessee has inside this year could be legendary. The Vols may finally be in a position to compete for an SEC championship with an experienced roster.

— Written by Cody McClure, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a radio host and lead SEC Writer for Three Point Stance Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @CodyMcClureCFB.