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10 Questions for 2014 #9 - Can the Vols Get More Pressure on the Quarterback?

An embarrassing multi-year multi-coach plague.

Joe Robbins

Five years we've been asking these questions, and this one shows up every time.  Let's once again copy and paste from last year's question:

From 1990-2005 Tennessee had at least 28 sacks every year, including five seasons of 40+ sacks with the pinnacle of 50 sacks in 2000.  And then here are the numbers from the last seven eight years:

  • 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)
  • 2012: 17 sacks in 12 games (103rd)
  • 2013:  18 sacks in 12 games (101st)

We are bad at this.  And it's an unfortunate thing to be bad at in the SEC, where the Vols have ranked last the last two years and next-to-last the year before.  If defensive line play is the greatest point of separation between the SEC and the rest of college football, Tennessee gets pressure on the quarterback at a mid-major level.

The Vols have had an inability to get to the quarterback in games that matter as well.  Since 2007, here are the games in which the Vols have recorded 3+ sacks:

  • 2007:  Arkansas State, Kentucky, Wisconsin
  • 2008:  Northern Illinois, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt
  • 2009:  Western Kentucky, Florida, Memphis
  • 2010:  Memphis, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, North Carolina
  • 2011:  Buffalo, South Carolina
  • 2012:  Georgia State, Kentucky
  • 2013:  South Carolina, Kentucky
As you can see, with a handful of notable exceptions the Vol defense has only gotten significant pressure on the quarterback against sub-par competition in the last seven seasons.  And even in those handful of games with strong pressure on the quarterback, the Vols won only two of them.  The most notable exception is the South Carolina game last season, when the Vols sacked Connor Shaw four times including twice in the fourth quarter on what became three-and-out series.

It's not one man's problem; at this point you're talking about a span of five defensive coordinators.  Monte Kiffin's defense went four weeks without a sack in 2009.  Sal Sunseri's defense had seven sacks against Georgia State and Kentucky and ten in the other ten games combined.  For the last three years and three defensive coordinators, the Vols have had only two games each season with 3+ sacks.

Tennessee needs big plays on both sides of the ball, but especially on defense to offset the inexperience issues which could plague the Vols from down to down.  The Vols have recorded just 143 sacks in the last seven seasons.  On the other side of the ball Tennessee has had some legendary offensive line play, from David Cutcliffe's quick-fire attack which led the nation with four sacks allowed in 2007 to the o-line pride group which just graduated three and four year starters.  But despite finishing in the Top 15 in sacks allowed three different times in the last seven years, including #1 in 2007 and #3 in 2012, the Vols are only +14 in sacks vs sacks allowed since 2007.  We have had incredible offensive line play, averaging less than 1.5 sacks allowed per game.  But the defense has barely even returned the favor.

13 of Tennessee's 18 sacks last season graduated; Jordan Williams leads the returning players at a robust 1.5 sacks from last year.  Curt Maggitt is back, but past performance doesn't suggest he's an instant cure with just two sacks in nine games in 2012.  Tennessee should be playing a ton of freshmen and newcomers on the defensive line - more on that later - so it may be unreasonable to ask for sudden change in this department.  Bigger, stronger, faster talent appears to be the cure here, and in time Butch Jones may grow NFL defensive linemen in Knoxville once more.  But for now, any improvement would go a long way.