Through two games — one of which being FCS ETSU — Tennessee has registered just two sacks. Both of those came from two interior players in Shy Tuttle and Emmit Gooden. The lack of a consistent pass rush was a concern coming into the season and unfortunately for Tennessee fans it remains a huge question mark heading into week three.
Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt is known for his ability to coach up a defense, but it’s a little different case for him this year as he coaches through a complete and total rebuild. He discussed that lack of pass rush after the game on Saturday.
“We still don’t get much pressure,” Pruitt said. “We’ve got to continue to develop that. We’ve got some guys who actually have some ability to do it, but they’ve got to have an understanding about get-off, about what kind of pass move they’re going to do. The first thing needs to be speed. We’ve got a long ways to go in that regard.”
Tennessee has played Jonathan Kongbo, Deandre Johnson, Jordan Allen and Darrell Taylor off the edge. None of those have stepped up to the plate and delivered for Pruitt yet, but it’s still early.
“I think some of it has to do with the ball coming out fast and some of it could be from teams protecting with seven folks,” Pruitt said on Monday. “You can affect the quarterback in more than one way — you can get your hands up and bat balls, which we did.”
Those batted balls sparked a Tennessee team that frankly came out unacceptably flat against ETSU. It was an interesting a different way to get a football team going, but there for a stretch in the second quarter, ETSU couldn’t find a throwing lane. Tennessee wasn’t getting pressure, but Kyle Phillips and company were doing a good job of anticipating throws and getting their hands up. That turned into two turnovers and two touchdowns.
Those disruptive plays are outstanding, but the pass rush as a whole remains a problem. Pruitt seemed frustrated with the defenses inability to finish off sacks, which happened too many times against Will Grier and West Virginia.
“The one thing that I’ve noticed that we’ve got to improve on is in the last two games how many times have we had a defender that’s (close to) the quarterback, and we don’t get him on the ground? So when we get that close, we need to be getting them on the ground,” Pruitt said.
Finishing off those plays will be a major key going forward. Tennessee faces Jarrett Stidham, Jake Fromm, Tua Tagovailoa, Jake Bentley, Drew Lock, Kyle Shurmur and Terry Wilson this year in SEC play. If you aren’t getting pressure and finishing plays in the backfield, it’s going to likely be a long day for your young secondary against those guys.
Pruitt in all likelihood just doesn’t have the athletes that he needs firing off the edge right now, but we knew that coming into this year. Due to that, I’d expect plenty of aggressive blitzing in conference play. But like Pruitt said on Monday, Tennessee has to finish and get the quarterback on the ground.