Tennessee has made outstanding strides in the secondary and at inside linebacker, signing multiple blue-chip prospects to bolster those positions. What Jeremy Pruitt hasn’t been able to do just yet is find consistent pass rushing help opposite of Darrell Taylor. That’s something that has to change in the 2020 class, with Taylor heading out the door after this season.
Let’s take a look at the state of the outside linebackers.
One Sure Thing: Darrell Taylor
We’ve already talked a little bit about Taylor, now let’s dive deeper. The Tennessee senior pass rusher flirted with the idea of going to the NFL during the offseason, but chose to come back in order to help his stock. Taylor really emerged last year just when the Vols needed someone to on the edge.
It was his efforts against Georgia and Kentucky that turned heads in 2018. Three sacks against the Bulldogs and four against the Wildcats had fans and analysts wondering about the rest of his games. Where did that production go in the other ten games? Outside of those two games, Taylor registered just one more sack against Vanderbilt, bringing his total to eight for the season.
In order to improve that stock, Taylor needs to even out that production in 2019. Tennessee has to have that consistent threat coming off the edge, because outside of Taylor, it’s one giant unknown for now.
Who else will emerge?
Here’s where the problem begins for Tennessee. Sure, you’ve got one of the top returning pass rushers in the SEC, but can you count on anyone else on the other side?
This conversation begins with DeAndre Johnson, who I though flashed a little bit during the Orange and White game. The 6-3, 246 pound Johnson became a big part of the rotation after Jonathan Kongbo tore his ACL against Auburn. From there, Johnson picked up two sacks and three tackles for loss. We haven’t seen a ton out of Johnson yet, but he appears to have the size an athletic ability to make somewhat of an impact as a junior in 2019. Johnson is one I’ve got my eye on that could emerge as a playmaker.
Tennessee has three more obvious options for depth, not counting the versatile guys that can play both inside and out. It’s tough to put an order on these guys right now as things currently stand.
Kivon Bennett is a guy that has slimmed down from 280 pounds to 248. The 6-2 outside linebacker redshirted as a sophomore after appearing in four games last season. Bennett is a still virtual unknown, but he has a chance to carve out a role in camp with a lack of bodies on the outside. Bennett has another three seasons to develop in Knoxville.
Next up is Jordan Allen, who enters his second season after signing with Tennessee from the JUCO ranks. The 6-4, 238 pound edge rusher appeared in nine games in 2018, mainly as a special teamer. With two years of eligibility left, Allen has a chance to grow into legitimate defensive role. Allen was the 14th rated JUCO prospect in the class of 2018 and the 2nd ranked edge rusher.
Now entering the equation is four-star pass rusher Roman Harrison, who received a big ratings bump from 247 Sports late in the process. The 6-4, 234 pound outside linebacker was the 5A defensive player of the year in Georgia in 2018. Harrison racked up 31 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks in his final year of high school. He now enters the equation on the edge for Tennessee, with a clear chance to crack the rotation as a freshman.
As mentioned above, you can’t count out the inside linebackers in this equation either. Daniel Bituli took snaps on the edge last year. New additions Henry To’oto’o and Quavaris Crouch could do the same as Jeremy Pruitt and Derrick Ansley attempt to jolt this pass rush into high gear.