Thursday evening, Butch Jones picked up a commitment from dominant 5-star defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie. As RTI’s Daniel Lewis pointed out in his column, improving the talent along the defensive front is imperative if the Vols are to return to national prominence. Tennessee ranked dead last in the SEC in sacks the previous two seasons and if you look at the program’s decline over the last decade, the Vols’ inability to pressure opponents with their front four (or front three in the case of Sunseri’s lone unforgettable year on Rocky Top) might tell the biggest story.
Tennessee’s team SEC sack rankings
2013 – 14th, 1.5 sacks per game
2012 – 14th, 1.42 sacks per game
2011 – 11th, 1.25 sacks per game
2010 – 7th, 2.0 sacks per game
2009 – 8th, 1.54 sacks per game
2008 – 9th, 1.92 sacks per game
2007 – 5th,1.79 sacks per game
2006 – 11th, 1.33 sacks per game
2005 – Tied for 4th, 2.90 sacks per game
2004 – 4th, 2.91 sacks per game
That’s not a pretty picture. Since 2004, the Vols ranked inside the top half of the SEC in sacks just three times and last or second to last four seasons. On average, the Tennessee defense ranked in the bottom half of the league in sacks over the last 10 years.
Think about that.
Tennessee, a program which used to punish opposing QBs with regularity, has featured a feeble pass rush for the better part of a decade.
In 2004, the Vols averaged 2.91 sacks per game and went 10-3; since then, they’ve won just over six games a season. Obviously there is more at play here than defensive line struggles (like coaching changes, recruiting failures and attrition—to name a few), but it’s tough to ignore Tennessee’s D-line struggles when looking at the overall state of the program.
As you’d expect, Tennessee’s individual sack numbers don’t look any better.
Tennessee’s DL sack leader and his ranking within the SEC
2013 – Corey Miller, 6.5 sacks, 7th
2012 – Darrington Sentimore, 4.0 sacks, t-22nd
2011 – Malik Jackson, 2.5 sacks, t-33rd
2010 – Malik Jackson, 5.0 sacks, t-12th
2009 – Chris Walker, 6.0 sacks, t-7th
2008 – Roberts Ayers and Wes Brown, 3.0 sacks, t-23rd
2007 – Robert Ayers, 4.0 sacks, t-14th
2006 – Xavier Mitchell, 4.0 sacks, t-18th
2005 – Parys Haralson, 9.0 sacks, t-3rd
2004 – Parys Haralson, 7.0 sacks, t-3rd
A Vol defensive lineman hasn’t ranked in the top five in the conference in sacks since Parys Haralson did so in 2004 and 2005. Corey Miller, UT’s sack leader last year, entered the final game of the season with just two under his belt. From 2006 to 2012, only once did a UT lineman rank in the top-10 in the SEC in sacks.
Meanwhile, a player from a division champ has ranked in the top-2 in the conference in sacks eight of the last 10 seasons and has led the conference in the same category four consecutive years. That’s no coincidence — you simply must be able to put pressure on the QB to get to Atlanta.
What does this mean for the Vols moving forward? Much has been made of Tennessee losing six of its top eight defensive linemen, but that group was, statistically, the worst in the SEC over the last three seasons against the pass. It’ll be up to newcomers like Derek Barnett, Michael Sawyers, Owen Williams and Joe Henderson, plus sophomore Corey Vereen, to turn around the decade-long decline of the Vol pass rush…or at least jumpstart it in the right direction until Kahlil McKenzie and his friends arrive in 2015.