Making its third appearance on our annual countdown, this question has unfortunately haunted Tennessee for the last six years. From 1990-2005 Tennessee had at least 28 sacks every season, going for 40+ five times in that span including the school record of 50 from 2000. The fall from there has been steep:
- 2006: 17 sacks in 13 games (99th nationally)
- 2007: 24 sacks in 14 games (65th)
- 2008: 23 sacks in 12 games (66th)
- 2009: 20 sacks in 13 games (95th)
- 2010: 26 sacks in 13 games (55th)
- 2011: 15 sacks in 12 games (107th)
Fun fact: the returning starter with the most sacks last season was Prentiss Waggner. A defensive back. With two sacks.
Simply put, this has to change before Tennessee can ever rejoin the top tier of the SEC.
We'll talk more later in our series about the change to a 3-4 defense and the arrival of Sal Sunseri. But regardless of formation or coordinator, Tennessee has to put more pressure on the opposing quarterback. The days of bending and hoping not to break have to be over if the Vols want to move forward.
So, what will change on this front in 2012?
It was painfully clear in each of the last two seasons that Tennessee simply couldn't get any pressure from their front four unless they were playing inferior competition (three sacks vs Buffalo last year, five at Memphis and three vs Ole Miss in 2010). In 2010 the Vols also weren't secure enough on the back end to really blitz at all, being that we couldn't even put a dime package on the field. I feel like that changed some last year, but we didn't get the production in the opposing backfield to back it up.
Whether the Vols go with a 4-3 or 3-4 or both, the pressure has to get better starting up front, and there are certainly still questions about who will play on the defensive line (more on that later). Where there are few questions is at linebacker: A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt were second and third on the team in tackles last season, and Herman Lathers returns from injury. While Johnson recorded no sacks and Maggitt was credited for just 0.5, these guys did combine for 10 tackles for loss. The leading returning Vol in TFLs? Jacques Smith, who should be in better position to attack this season. The Vols were 74th nationally in TFLs last season; this must improve as well.
With a more experienced secondary playing behind a strong LB corps, Tennessee shouldn't have to rely solely on the defensive line to produce sacks...which is good, because we're not entirely sure who those guys are going to be anyway. But the biggest factor in Tennessee's defensive aggressiveness may be what happens on the other side of the ball.
Consider that while the 2000 defense with Outland Trophy winner John Henderson set the school record for sacks in a single season, the second and third UT defenses on that list are the ones that played with Peyton Manning: 47 sacks for the 1997 defense, 42 sacks for the 1995 defense. Now, the last thing we want to do is disrespect fine gentlemen like Leonard Little, Bill Duff, Tyrone Hines, and Al Wilson. There are a lot of reasons those defenses got so many sacks. But among those reasons is the fact that when you know your offense is going to go down and score anyway, you've got a little more freedom to give your defense the green light.
If anything close to the best case/Cincinnati scenario comes true for the Tennessee offense, you may find the Tennessee defense taking lots and lots more chances. This will put more pressure on the secondary, sure, but with still so many questions up front and in a brand new scheme, pinning our ears back and saying here we come isn't the worst or least entertaining idea in the world.
Whatever it takes, Tennessee has to get in the backfield. It's an immediate need facing Mike Glennon and his 3,054 yards in game one. It should also be noted that NC State gave up 32 sacks last season, 95th in the nation.
No better time to turn them loose.