Can Tennessee’s Pass Rush Take A Leap Forward?

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    The transfer portal ravaged a Tennessee defense that overachieved for much of the 2021 season. A better than advertised run defense that was one of the SEC’s best at creating negative plays was overshadowed by an abysmal third down defense.

    The Vols couldn’t get off the field, ranking 13th in the conference in third down defense. Opponents moved the chains on 43% of third downs against Tennessee and it reared its ugly head in a close loss against Ole Miss (11-of-21) and a close win against Kentucky (12-of-17).

    A number of factors contributed to Tennessee’s third down defense struggles but none more so than its struggles creating pressure with a four-man pass rush.

    Tennessee ranked eighth in the conference in sacks but defensive coordinator Tim Banks often had to get creative to create pressure.

    Despite the struggles to get home with four rusher, there’s reason to believe Tennessee’s pass rush can take a step forward. That’s due to defensive ends Tyler Baron and Byron Young entering their second seasons with a major role.

    Baron will be a junior in the fall and Young will be a senior, but both will have a major role for their second consecutive season in Knoxville. That provides real optimism that they can take a major leap forward.

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    Tennessee survived a scare earlier this offseason when Baron entered the transfer portal for a day only to withdraw and return to Knoxville.

    Baron was solid during his sophomore season, recording four sacks and 10 tackles for a loss. However, Baron’s production was fantastic the first three weeks of the season but couldn’t hold up. The former Knoxville Catholic standout recorded 1.5 sacks and four tackles for loss in the first three games of the season.

    Perhaps that success was due to early season weak out of conference opponents, but Baron’s best game of the bunch was against Pitt.

    “I think there were times when all of us weren’t consistent enough to be on the field, including him but not just him,” Tennessee defensive line coach Rodney Garner said of Tyler Baron. “I have been pleased with Tyler thus far this spring. He’s been more in line with what we want to do. He’s practicing harder. He’s been competing. I think he’s trying; he’s straining, just like all the guys. We just have to continue to raise our standards and we have to expect more from each other. They have to expect more from me and I’ve got to expect more from them.”

    Young missed the first two games of the season due to eligibility concerns after transferring to Tennessee from junior college. Once eligible, Young became Tennessee’s best edge rusher totaling 5.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 11 games.

    The South Carolina native also added an interception in the Music City Bowl loss against Purdue.

    “I have seen development out of BY (ByronYoung),” Garner said. “From where he has come since last year this time. The growth that he’s made, it’s been tremendous, but he still has a long way to go because he was so far off. Just watching him grow as a player and gaining confidence.”

    In 2021, Baron and Young rarely played on the field together at the same time. The duo would play on the edge standing up while bigger defensive ends Ja’Quain Blakely and Caleb Tremblay played opposite of them with a hand in the ground.

    Tennessee played them together for significantly more snaps in the bowl game than they did the rest of the season and doing the same in 2022 would alleviate the focus opponents’ pass protection gives each of them.

    The Vols need a much improved pass rush this season if it wants to take another step forward. A secondary that was shaky a season ago loses its two best players and could be worse.

    Tennessee’s pass rush needs to make life easier on the secondary and Baron and Young have the potential to do just that with breakout seasons.

    Ryan Schumpert is a senior at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since the moment he stepped on campus. He just completed a three-year stint with the Daily Beacon, the last two of which as the Sports Editor. Ryan also spent last three years at Volquest providing strong Tennessee baseball coverage of Tony Vitello's resurgent program. While the bulk of Ryan's responsibilities involved beat coverage and writing, he also recorded podcasts for both the Beacon and Volquest. Did we leave out the part about Ryan interning for the Smokies? Ryan's work ethic, versatility, and strong writing skills are but three of the reasons why Vol Nation will be hearing from Ryan for years to come.