When the Vols sacked Tim Tebow three times last year, I think we all had visions of Monte Kiffin's defense returning us to the glory days of Leonard Little and Al Wilson, when quarterbacks feared for their lives in Neyland Stadium. It was a decade ago when the Vols had their best single season sack total with 50 in 2000, a line led by Will Overstreet's 17 QB pressures and John Henderson's 12 sacks (...we all understand how insane that is for a defensive tackle, right? That's the same total Ndamukong Suh had last year...with two extra games to work with).
Henderson won the Outland Trophy, and 2000 marked the high point of a twelve year run from 1990-2001 where the Vols had at least 30 sacks every season, and had 40+ five times. After just missing the mark with 29 in 2002 and 28 in 2003, the Vols posted 33 sacks in 2004 and 2005...business as usual. During that entire sixteen year run, Tennessee sent 33 players from its defensive front seven to the NFL Draft, including Chris Mims, Todd Kelly, Al Wilson, Shaun Ellis, John Henderson, and Albert Haynesworth in the first round.
Putting a beating on the opposing quarterback was the weekly expectation. My very first game in the student section, the Vols set the school record for sacks with 13 against Wyoming in 1999. And that performance didn't feel that unusual at the time: we had numerous 5+ sack games against great offenses during that era, and against weaker opponents our superior talent simply dominated. Opposing QBs always had to worry about the Vols.
And then in 2006, the bottom fell out.
Out of nowhere, the Vols regressed to just 17 sacks in 2006, 99th in the nation. We never really recovered under Chavis: the Vols had 24 sacks in 14 games in 2007, and 16 of the Vols' 23 sacks in 2008 came against Northern Illinois, Mississippi State, and Vanderbilt.
We thought Monte Kiffin would fix everything. Instead, Tennessee's pass rush actually got worse.
Tennessee had just 20 sacks in 13 games last year; 8 of those came against Western Kentucky and Memphis. 1.54 sacks per game was good for 95th nationally. Unbelievably, the Vols didn't record a single sack in four consecutive games last year, from Ohio through Alabama. Specific to Ohio and Auburn, the Vols had great shots at getting the QB on the ground, but couldn't finish the job and instead gave up a ton of yards.
Tennessee averaged 3.1 sacks per game from 1990-2005. That's almost twice as many sacks per game as the Vols have recorded the last four years, when they've averaged just 1.6 per contest. Plain and simple, the Vols aren't making opposing quarterbacks pay, or even worry...and in a year where Tennessee will need its defense to carry the team, the sack totals absolutely have to get better.
But without the disruptive interior presence of both Dan Williams and Wes Brown - who combined for 7 sacks last year - can we really expect the pass rush to improve?
The only proven pass rush commodities on this defense are at end, where Chris Walker had a great season last year that included 4 sacks, and Ben Martin quietly added 3.5 of his own. No other returning Vol had more than one sack last year.
Tennessee may be solid off the end, but the questions at defensive tackle loom large for the entire defense: Montori Hughes had no sacks and only two TFLs last year, and he's our best option at DT. At linebacker, LaMarcus Thompson showed the ability to get in the backfield with 7 TFLs, which makes him the team's returning leader in that category. Nick Reveiz added 4.5 in less than 4 games, and Savion Frazier had 4 in 8 games, so linebackers were disruptive last year at times, even if they weren't getting the quarterback on the ground.
The Vols can get pressure off the edge, but will struggle to get as much push up the middle this year. So how can a Justin Wilcox defense succeed where Monte Kiffin (and John Chavis the last three years) failed?
Boise State also had a drop-off in sacks last year, getting only 25 in 14 games. But Wilcox's first three defenses were all ranked in the Top 30 nationally in sacks, averaging 34 per year from 2006-2008.
A defense can be disruptive without getting a ton of sacks - last year Alabama led the SEC and was second nationally in total defense, but averaged only 2.2 sacks per game. On the flip side, Texas Tech was second nationally with 3.15 sacks per game, but only 49th in total defense. While 20 sacks is way too low for Tennessee, the Vols don't have to push 40 to be productive...but they do need to do a better job disrupting the passing game. For a secondary playing without Eric Berry, the pass rush is the first line of defense.
In terms of numbers, it'll be hard for the Vols not to improve on the 1.5 sacks per game they averaged last year, and it better be hard to duplicate four consecutive games without one. But in terms of personnel, it's hard to imagine Tennessee's pass rush being better than it was last year without Dan Williams and Wes Brown. Can Chris Walker step up and become an All-SEC defensive end? Can Ben Martin make the leap in his final year and become a consistent complement on the other end? And what will Justin Wilcox dial up for this defense to get more pressure on the quarterback?
We're only on the second question, and already we have to make this point: in most other years, an issue like this would be near the top of the leaderboard. But the issues facing Derek Dooley and the Vols go beyond just the obvious ones like the offensive line (which we'll get to) - the fact that the Vols had only 20 sacks last year is an afterthought among Tennessee's problems in 2010. But for this defense, it's a very important afterthought.
Tennessee hasn't had an effective pass rush in five years. Wilcox and the defense need to do something to change that if this defense is going to carry the team to something more than moral victories.
Other questions in our series: