After losing EDGE rusher Byron Young to the NFL Draft this offseason, the Vols are looking for new EDGE rushers to step up and show out as spring camp comes to a close this Saturday.
The Vols have a handful of pieces that will be eyeing that position on the edge.
Two of the players that Tennessee is most excited about are a pair of rising sophomore standouts in Joshua Josephs and James Pearce Jr.
Josephs, 6-foot-3, 238-pounds, showed early signs of emergence throughout the season last year and had arguably his most productive game in the Orange Bowl against Clemson. The Kennesaw, GA native finished his freshman season with six solo tackles, six assisted tackles, and one sack during 12 games played for the Vols.
Pearce, on the other hand, saw the majority of his snaps on special teams units last season. The former five-star prospect out of Charlotte, North Carolina packs a lot of potential to his game but didn’t quite put enough together to see extended time on the field during his freshman season.
“Josh [Jospehs] has had a good camp,” Tennessee outside linebackers coach Mike Ekeler said on Thursday. “James [Pearce Jr.] needs to continue to learn how to practice, compete and strain.”
Despite having a few talented rising young players, though, it’s senior Roman Harrison that has seemingly been the standout of Tennessee spring camp in the eyes of Ekeler.
“Roman Harrison has done a heck of a job,” Ekeler said. “He’s had the best camp of all of them.”
While providing a solid backup to Byron Young last season, Harrison ended the season with the eighth-most tackles on Tennessee’s entire defense last year (39). The rising fifth-year senior also had the third-most tackles for loss on the team last year (7) only finishing behind linebacker Aaron Beasley (13) and EDGE rusher Byron Young (12).
Now, though, it’s time for Harrison to take that next step and become even more reliable and impactful as Young was for the Vols.
“He should,” Ekeler said about Harrison taking that next jump in his game. “He’s a senior. That’s what he should be doing. He’s been consistent overall and consistent in meetings. He has stacked 12 great practices together, but that’s his job. He’s taken ownership in that, and he’s doing nothing other than what he is supposed to be doing, which is what we want.”
While the 6-foot-2, 235-pounder has all the physical tools on the field, Roman Harrison is still developing his skills as a leader on the field and in his position room. And it sounds as though that’s a challenge that Harrison is accepting and embracing this offseason.
“It’s still a work in progress if I’m being honest and transparent,” Ekeler said about Harrison’s leadership role. “He would tell you the same thing. In order to lead, you have to set the standard and uphold it. You have to make sure that other guys in the room are upholding it. That’s what we are working towards right now, but it’s still a work in progress.”
The final EDGE rusher that Ekeler mentioned on Thursday is true freshman Caleb Herring. In fact, it sounded like Ekeler was even raving about the Tennessee newcomer.
Caleb Herring joined up his brother, rising sophomore linebacker Elijah Herring, this past offseason as he officially joined Josh Heupel’s Tennessee team. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound rusher is an athletic playmaker with a quick first step and plenty of promise and potential to his game down the road.
“Caleb (Herring) is coming on, and that guy can be a freaky talent,” Ekeler said. “He loves ball. The funny thing about Caleb is after practice, he’ll come in, and I won’t even have a chance to watch the film yet, and he’s watched it all. That guy eats, sleeps and drinks ball. He loves it. That’s what the great ones do.”
Ekeler continued on to compliment Herring’s work ethic. For a player like Herring, even one that projects to be good, that individual has to be willing to put in the extra work to improve his game. That was the story of Jalin Hyatt during the 2022 off-season. And it looks like Herring already has those qualities from a very early age.
“A lot of people want to talk about, ‘I want this’ and, ‘I want that,’ and their actions don’t match their expectations,” Ekeler continued on to say. “You have a young guy like [Caleb Herring] who comes in, and he’s doing that on his own. He just goes in there, locks the door in the meeting room and gets after it. I am really excited about him as well.”
Tennessee finished the 2022 season with the most tackles for loss (94) and the third-most tackles (910) in the SEC. If Tennessee is wanting to improve on those already impressive numbers from last season, the EDGE rushers are going to have to produce. That could very well be Tennessee’s most important defensive position next season.