Second verse, same as the first. This time last year we were lamenting Tennessee's inability to get the quarterback on the ground since 2005. Though the numbers did improve slightly - 26 sacks for the Vols in 2010 compared to just 20 in 2009 - Tennessee was still just 55th nationally in a category John Chavis defenses used to dominate (LSU was 18th nationally last year).
Though five of UT's twenty-six sacks came against Memphis, as in most other areas the Vols did improve as the season went along. After recording just ten sacks in the first eight games, the Vols averaged 3.2 sacks in the last five games. Again, quality of competition makes a difference, but so does getting the right guys on the field.
Malik Jackson, the Vols' leading sack man with five last year, didn't go into beast mode until he was moved to defensive tackle. He recorded zero sacks in the first seven games, then got all five of his between South Carolina and Vanderbilt. Nothing would help the Vols' pass rush more than for Jackson to play at that pace for the entire 2011 season.
The rest of the pass rush will have to come from new faces: Gerald Williams and Chris Walker combined for another 7.5 sacks, and Herman Lathers was next in line with 2.5. Hopefully Lathers will return to action sooner than later, but off the end it'll be up to Jacques Smith (two sacks last year) and players to be named later to get to the quarterback.
Smith is the latest in a long line of Vols we thought would be the next great pass rusher. After the run of guys like Leonard Little, the Haynesworth/Henderson/Overstreet line in 2001, and even as recently as Parys Haralson, we just kept expecting great defensive linemen to keep coming through campus. But in the last five years, the Vols have lacked a truly dominant pass rusher; we only got one good year out of Robert Ayers, and his strength wasn't all in getting to the quarterback anyway.
Whether Smith can become the guy that Ayers, Chris Walker, and others never fully materialized into is yet to be seen...as is exactly how much more the Justin Wilcox defense has up its sleeve for getting to the QB.
Working with such unusual attrition last season, Wilcox never fully or even partially unleashed the sort of defense we assumed we were getting when he signed on from Boise State. The Vols couldn't even run a dime package on the back end, and couldn't do anything up front due to lack of talent and experience.
There will be more experience to work with in 2011, but overall talent up front is still a concern. Even if Jacques Smith matures into a great defensive end, do the Vols have other linemen that can help him out? Is there even a second defensive end we feel confident about at this point? I feel like Corey Miller is a guy that should be able to help out in a real way somewhere, but that's an opinion that's still based more on recruiting evaluations than anything else. The same goes for Curt Maggitt, who may not even play defensive end.
It's even more alarming when you consider the number of linebackers who recorded a sack last season: Lathers had 2.5. Daryl Vereen had one. That's it.
Again, maybe Wilcox is going to send more pressure from more places this fall, and we just couldn't do it last year because of the learning curve and the lack of depth. But whether it's up front or through blitzing, Tennessee has to get to the quarterback more often.
The only good news here is that the Vols weren't alone in their struggles: 26 sacks in 13 games was still good for 7th in the SEC, ahead of Georgia (24 sacks) and Florida (21). Alabama picked up just one more than the Vols with 27. So while some teams did excel - South Carolina's 41 were good for fifth place nationally - sacks aren't necessarily a benchmark for success.
Still, the Vol defense needs all the help it can get. And so here's a comparison I hope we can make early and often this fall: the early John Chavis defenses at UT were so aggressive because they knew Peyton Manning was waiting on the sideline. You could take more chances and blitz more often, because even if you got beat you had an offense that was capable of answering.
Tennessee's defense overall probably won't be good enough to stop the better offenses it will face this fall. But if Tennessee's offense is as good as we all hope it will be, then perhaps the best strategy will be to turn them loose on defense more often and go after the quarterback. Whether through the continued maturation of talented guys like Malik Jackson and Jacques Smith, or blitz packages that take the chances the Vol offense affords them, Tennessee has to get better at putting the quarterback on the ground if the Vols want to get back to the top of the SEC.