Tennessee is ranked sixth in the nation in total team sacks with 29 through the first eight games of the season. Only Texas A&M (33) and Ole Miss (30) rank higher than Tennessee from the Southeastern Conference.
The Vols’ pass rush has been critical to the defensive success this year thanks to the play of veterans such as Tyler Baron and Roman Harrison in addition to breakout players such as James Pearce Jr.
Tennessee has found big numbers in the sacks department against non-SEC competition such as Austin Peay while also using the pass rush to force SEC quarterbacks into uncomfortable positions like in the South Carolina and Texas A&M wins in Neyland Stadium.
While Tennessee did find four sacks against Alabama on the road, the Vols had a tough time keeping up the pressure on Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe throughout all four quarters. That led to a challenging matchup against Kentucky the next weekend in which the Vols only found one sack on quarterback Devin Leary.
The Vols proved to have an effective pass rush in the first six games which has altered the way defenses are scheming Tennessee moving forward.
“I think Bama did a little of it,” Defensive Coordinator Tim Banks said on if he feels opponents are starting to respect Tennessee’s pass rush more. “Obviously, Kentucky showed more in that, showing in the pass. The chipping we saw probably a little bit from A&M, so probably midseason you’re starting to see a lot more of it. The seven-man protections is probably a little bit different. Kentucky did a little bit more than what they had shown on tape.”
It’ll be up to the defensive staff and the Tennessee defensive players to make adjustments of their own in the final stretch of the season as teams start to realize just how disruptive the Vols’ front seven can be.
Tennessee defensive lineman Bryson Eason was asked on Monday if it gets harder to make adjustments throughout the season with opponents collecting more and more film by the week.
“I wouldn’t say it gets harder but guys obviously do catch on and they get coached up on certain things and tendencies that we might do,” Eason said. “So it might be a little more difficult but we like a challenge so we’re all for it.”
The Kentucky game showed just how important the Vols’ pass rush is to their defensive success, particularly without star cornerback Kamal Hadden in the lineup anymore due to a season-ending injury.
“At the end of the day, obviously we have to be able to adjust and make adjustments as a coaching staff and obviously the players on the field,” Banks said about the Kentucky matchup. “That’s just how it is. If you’re able to affect the quarterback with your four, those guys aren’t dumb, they’re going to do what they need to do as well to be able to protect their edges. Hats off to Kentucky, I thought they did a good job that way.”
It will be a game of adjustments for the Vols with two massive SEC East games among their final four opponents in No. 12 Missouri and No. 2 Georgia (CFB Playoff rankings). But, as Eason said, it is a challenge that Tennessee’s players feel that they are up for.
No. 17 Tennessee (6-2, 3-2 SEC) will host UConn (1-7) during a Homecoming game in Neyland Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 4 at 12:00 p.m. ET noon. The game will be able to be seen on the SEC Network.