Every summer for the last five years we've run a "10 Questions for 20XX" feature. And every summer for the last five years, we've found ourselves asking if this will be the year Tennessee finally gets pressure on the quarterback again.
It's a problem spanning multiple defensive coordinators, bottoming out the last three seasons when Wilcox, Sunseri, and Jancek led units finishing with just 15, 17, and 18 sacks from 2011-13. Tennessee had 28+ sacks every year from 1990-2005, maxing out with a school record 50 in 2000 behind John Henderson's Outland Trophy performance. But from 2006-13 the Vols averaged just 20 sacks per season with a high of 26 in 2010.
No one thought this would be the year that changed. Tennessee replaced all four of its starters on the defensive line and replaced one of them with a true freshman. We knew help was coming in this department, but it was coming later, not now.
But as it turns out, just because you replaced all four starters on your defensive line doesn't mean you didn't get better. In nine games, Team 118 has 24 sacks. And that true freshman? He leads the team and is tied for third in the SEC with seven of them.
Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt didn't just make a name for themselves with back-to-back overtime sacks against South Carolina. Together they've combined for 13 of Tennessee's 24 sacks, with seven other Vols getting in on the action as well this year. If Tennessee makes a bowl game they'll be on pace for 35 sacks this year, which would be the most since the school record in 2000, and Barnett will be on pace to have the first double-digit sack season since Big John won the Outland the same year. 10 sacks would put Barnett (or Maggitt if he gets there) on a short list with Reggie White (a school record 15 in 1983), Jonathan Brown, John Henderson, Todd Kelly, Leonard Little, and Ronnie McCartney as the only players in school history to get double figures. Again, he's a true freshman.
Tennessee had already improved through the first half of the season with a dozen sacks in the first six games. But then Tennessee got Bo Wallace six times - three by Barnett - and famously put Dylan Thompson on the ground five times, all five coming from Barnett and Maggitt. Maggitt also got Tennessee's lone sack on Blake Sims.
I don't know how much more complicated the story is than two individuals really coming on at the right time. Barnett started from day one but has become much more of a force as the season has gone along; nevermind freshman honors, he's in the All-SEC conversation now. Maggitt was coming back from a November 2012 ACL tear and converting to a DE/OLB hybrid in Jancek's system, but he too seems to have found himself in the last three weeks.
So many of the headlines are going to Josh Dobbs (rightfully so) and then, by proxy, to the offensive line, which gave up 30 sacks in the first seven games but has only watched Dobbs go down once on the final drive against Alabama. But in a league where defensive line play has so often been the difference between elite teams and the rest of the pack, Dobbs and the offense have no better friends than the arrival of two elite pass rushers on the Vol defense.
Perhaps this has been an underrated component of Tennessee's overall decline in these last several seasons. The Vols have only had six defensive linemen drafted in the last eight years, sending 11 to the NFL Draft in the eight years before that. If that's the case, it's even better news to consider four of Tennessee's nine highest-rated commits for the 2015 class are defensive linemen, including a pair of five-star defensive tackles. Where coaching and schemes haven't made a difference in the last several years, raw talent is now starting to show up, and there's more on the way.
Barnett's story is one very much worth following, as there's just as much reason to be excited about his future as what we're seeing from Dobbs and Jalen Hurd. The more attention teams start paying to him, the more other guys could have a chance to get involved in the backfield. And the other guys have already been plenty involved there: Tennessee continues to lead the SEC in tackles for loss per game.
Fans will come to Neyland Stadium Saturday to see Josh Dobbs and watch the Vols try to get their fifth win of the season, one that would move Tennessee to the doorstep of bowl eligibility for the first time in four years. Dobbs and the offense will certainly get their chances against Kentucky's defense, but the Vol pass rush has to be licking its chops too: after the Vols, Kentucky has allowed the second most sacks in the league this year at 2.8 per game.
All of our memories of great Tennessee football during the 90s includes plenty of time in the opponent's backfield and plenty of quarterbacks on the ground. After a long absence, a strong pass rush is joining the movement as the Vols look to return to the promised land, and in Barnett and Maggitt the movement has both a present and a future.