With question marks abounding in regards to defensive depth, at least the front seven of UT's defense was solidified heading into the season.
That is until the Vols lost some of those key players to injury during training camp.
Senior defensive end Jaques Smith fractured his right thumb in practice on Aug. 6 and freshman defensive end Corey Vereen sprained his MCL in his right knee the very next day.
"It's adversity," said senior defensive end Corey Miller. "It happens every day. Guys go down. Others step up."
Before his injury, Smith was slated to be the starting "Leo" end, a position in defensive coordinator John Jancek's 4-3 defensive system that represents a hybrid defensive end and linebacker combination. With his status uncertain for Saturday's Austin Peay game, Miller, junior Jordan Williams and senior Marlon Walls will be asked to have bigger roles.
"It lends itself to more players getting an opportunity," head coach Butch Jones, said. "We have some veterans at that position who have played a lot of football here. ... We have a standard of expectation at a position that will never change no matter who's out there playing for us."
While he wasn't on the preseason depth chart, Vereen made a name for himself in training camp. Coaches raved about his hard work in the off-season, and his push for playing time included a six-sack performance in the Orange and White Game on April 20.
"I love him," defensive line coach Steve Stripling said. "I promise you, at nine o'clock at night you'll find him in (the football complex) doing something. He is the most motivated freshman I've ever seen in my career. He is unbelievable."
Injuries haven't stopped the pair from doing everything they can to help the team.
Even though he had been injured three days prior, Vereen still became one of the first freshman to get the black stripe off his helmet because of the work ethic he continued to show while being sidelined. With stripe removal comes an unofficial initiation into the football program for newcomers.
"Well, he had a big smile on his face," Stripling said. "And I will say this, like every other coach, I would've bet $100 that he would have got his stripe off first, and he would have if he hadn't gotten injured. But he's injured and the kid is still respected so much, because now he's approaching the injury like he does football, with treatment 10 hours a day and film study five hours a day."
As for Smith, he has become a vocal leader for the defense in practice.
"(Smith) is showing great leadership and energy and understanding that other guys are out there going through the grind," Stripling said. "He's out there doing a great job of leading."
Smith is unlikely to play Saturday and Vereen will be out. Their statuses will be readdressed before the Western Kentucky game next week.
"It's tough, but like I said, we have to move forward," Jancek said. "Nobody is going to feel sorry for us. It's just a matter of trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together so that you can put the best team and defense on the field."