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Pruitt: Tennessee defensive line needs to be tougher, offer more pass rush

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A deep group, but will anyone stand out?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 13 Tennessee Orange & White Game Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Tennessee didn’t lose much from last year’s team, but one of the biggest departures will impact a position that was already lacking. The Volunteers will have to try to find a way to replace Darrell Taylor on the edge, who was easily Tennessee’s only consistent pass rushing option.

It will likely be a platoon approach, beginning with veterans like Kivon Bennett and Deandre Johnson. A second-year player in Roman Harrison has a chance to make an impact, while a couple of four-star freshmen — Tyler Baron and Morven Joseph — will have likely crack the rotation early.

But as Jeremy Pruitt points out, pass rush doesn’t have to come off of the edge. A lot of times disruption comes from your interior players, and that’s something he wants to see more of from his defensive front this season.

“When it comes to rushing the quarterback, we’ve really got to improve there,” Pruitt said on Tuesday. “It’s something that we felt like in the offseason that – from getting the quarterback off his spot, improving our pass rush up the middle and finding guys that once they get on the edge can capture an edge and finish. In college football, the ball comes out really fast, so lots of times you can affect the quarterback more so up the middle than you can on the edge and we’ve really got to improve there.”

Tennessee has a ridiculous amount of veteran defensive linemen — six seniors to be exact. That group has perhaps been the biggest transformation on the roster since Pruitt arrived as the Vols have gotten much bigger up front. But is there a disruptor there within that group?

On Tuesday, Pruitt challenged his defensive line to play tougher and more consistent.

“We’ve got guys that can play winning football,” Pruitt said. “We’ve got to play with more toughness up there. We’ve got to play with more awareness. We’ve got to be more consistent. Again, that’s kind of the whole team.”

He also singled out a couple of guys in the rotation that have stood out that might surprise you.

“The one guy that I feel like has had really good practices every single day is LaTrell Bumphus,” Pruitt continued. “The guy continues to come to work every single day. He’s trying to be at his best. Matt Butler is another guy. We’ve got to get other guys to raise to their level of play at that position, and that’s a choice.”

Aubrey Solomon returns, along with Darel Middleton. Greg Emerson, Kurott Garland and Savion Williams will also be factors in the equation. Also, with the NCAA freezing eligibility for this season, you can’t rule out freshmen like Omari Thomas or Dominic Bailey getting in the mix for playing time early on.

Tennessee opens the 2020 season on September 26th at South Carolina. From the tone of Jeremy Pruitt, his defensive line has quite a bit work to do over these next three weeks.