NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Most the talk surrounded Roman Harrison and Josh Josephs this offseason as Tennessee’s defense looked to replace Byron Young’s pass rushing production.
But as Tennessee’s defense dominated in the Vols 49-13 season opening win over Virginia, Pearce was Tennessee’s most impressive edge rusher.
“James played really well today early in the football game,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said.
Pearce’s most notable plays came on a pair of third down sacks in the first half. The 6-foot-5, 242-pound edge rusher has the frame of an NFL edge rusher and his quick twitch was on display against the Cavaliers.
While Pearce isn’t a starter, he had a very defined role in the season opener. When Tennessee trotted its third-and-long pass rush packages on the field, Pearce was on the end opposite of Harrison while Tyler Baron and Omarr Norman-Lott played in the middle of the defensive line.
Combine that package with the snaps he played in the normal defensive line rotation and it’s hard not to raise your eyebrows at what Pearce could do for Tennessee’s defense this season.
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“I’m honestly not surprised at all about what he did,” safety Wesley Walker said of Pearce. “In the offseason he’s made big jumps both with his character and physically. His body has changed. He’s like a man child out there and he has a lot of ability for real. I wasn’t surprised at all.”
Pearce was the most impressive player on an extremely impressive Tennessee defensive line against Virginia. The Cavaliers were breaking in four new starting offensive linemen and it showed. Tennessee’s defensive front lived in the back field, particularly in the first half, on its way to 11 tackles for loss and four sacks on the game.
Tennessee’s defensive line was good last season but struggled to get to the passer bringing four rushers. Tim Banks’ defense was still aggressive blitzing Virginia but the Vols’ pass rush showed a better ability to get home with only four rushers.
“We going to rely on our d-line a lot this year,” Walker said. “They’re a real talented group. A real deep group and when they’re going it makes it easier. It’s just naturally going to make it easier for the backend. Communicating with those guys and letting them know y’all are driving the bus and we depending on y’all. This is the SEC. Your people in the trenches have to be dogs and they have to be locked in ready to go.”
Virginia is not in the SEC and we won’t learn until conference play the quantity and quality of dogs Tennessee’s defensive line has. But Saturday was a good start and Pearce was the biggest positive.