Vols looking for even more pass rush
Tennessee made tangible improvements in multiple areas of its football team this fall, but none were as obvious as the vast strides the Vols' made with their pass rush.
A year ago Tennessee was the worst pass rushing defense in the SEC, finishing with an abysmal 18 sacks. This fall, the defense turned the corner in a big way, almost doubling that total to end the season with 35 sacks, third best in the conference.
"I give a lot of credit to coach Strip (Stripling). He always made sure we worked on 'juice' takeoffs everyday in practice," sophomore Corey Vereen said. "Getting off the ball was a huge focus all year, using our hands and really 'reducing' when we turn the corner. I think that all showed up on the field.
"That felt good. It's awesome, we had an 18 sack improvement from last year, which is huge. That helps out our back end as well, they've only got to cover guys for four seconds or less if were affecting the quarterback."
The ability to get the quarterback, to affect the passer consistently, has not only transformed the Vols' defense into a unit capable of generating big plays. It's also changed the whole mindset on that side of the ball.
It's been several years since the Tennessee defense was able to dictate much of anything to opponents. Those days of playing the helpless victim appear to be over. Repeatedly tossing the opposing team's quarterback to the ground, the guy they're doing everything they can to protect, has a way of sending a message and setting a tone.
Fans have enjoyed finally having a front seven that can get after the quarterback, but the Vols' defensive backs are downright in love with the improved pass rush.
Nothing makes cornerback's job easier than a pass rush that's limiting a quarterback's time to survey the field or let routes develop. Cam Sutton has seen first hand what a difference
"It's been a lot easier this year, not just form me but the whole secondary," Sutton offered. "When the guys up front are getting a lot of pressure we're able to make plays. When they're getting those quarterback hurries it leads to quarterbacks making bad decisions back there which helps us out.
"When we're working hand-in-hand it makes the game easier for us and for those guys up front."
Obviously, the Vols got most of their sack production from the defensive end spot with Curt Maggitt (11 sacks) and freshman Derek Barnett (10) doing the majority of the damage.
Butch Jones, echoing Sutton's sentiments, likes the way the different levels of his defense are working together. Now he'd like to see the defensive front create more havoc in the middle of the line. Something the incoming recruiting class should aid significantly.
"The big thing now is for the three technique or the one technique to be able to win a one-on-one matchup, because what happens sometimes is when you are explosive off the edge it does create some one-on-one match-ups inside," Jones said of the pass rush and where he wants to see improvement. "Some of their sacks are what I call `opportunity sacks' where the interior defensive front has done a great job of generating a push up the middle and now the quarterback flushes the pocket and they are able to get that sack.
"A lot of times, although sacks are individual statistics, they're really team statistics as well in terms of the secondary, the linebackers, but also the whole entire defensive front."
IT'S ABOUT A WINNING
There's certainly been plenty of joy about making a bowl game. But there's not been any resting on earning a bowl bid. Jones has praised his team throughout the month of December and as they prepare to depart on Monday to go home for Christmas, Jones again reiterated that the bowl preparation has been good.
"Our players have had a great demeanor the entire bowl preparation," Jones said. "Today the energy they showed. A lot of times if your an immature football team you are just trying to pass time and get by. When you try go get by you don't get any better. They attacked today. I like their overall approach. It's been a very rewarding bowl preparation and I'm looking forward to continuing that when we get to Jacksonville."
Super freshman Derek Barnett said that going to a bowl game was a goal, but just getting there isn't enough.
"I'm excited to go to a bowl game," Barnett said. "But I want to win. I don't just want to play in a bowl game, I want to win.
"I think it's a big game. It's a big step for us if we win this ball game. It gives us a bunch of momentum and set 2015 off on the right track."