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Rodney Garner talks development of Byron Young, Tyler Baron

Two extremely important players.

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

A big x-factor for Tennessee in 2022 will be the defense, a unit that left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths coming out of the Music City Bowl loss to Purdue. However, the Volunteers got surprising production from the front seven one season ago, likely a direct result of the coaching of defensive line coach Rodney Garner.

Garner was a no-brainer hire for Josh Heupel, who needed a few guys with deep SEC ties. More than that, Garner’s track record is second to none. Instantly, Tennessee ranked among the best in college football in tackles for loss — that’s no coincidence.

Now they need to take that next step forward, and they badly need two veteran edge rushers to become difference makers. Byron Young and Tyler Baron are two of the most important players on the roster, and it’s their time to step up.

“I think ‘BY,’ his football IQ, has improved tremendously from where he was on the field last year at this time,” Garner said of Young. “He continues to move that needle in that direction. And then I just think understanding the nuances of football. Last year, when we first started, he was really like a newborn colt. He was just all over the place. Body was everywhere, just learning how to control his body, understanding football, understanding pass rush, how to use his hands, how to flip his hips.”

Young, a 6-3, 245 pound JUCO product, has the athletic ability to become a high draft pick with a solid senior season. Making eight starts last season, Young put up 5.5 sacks and totaled 11.5 tackles for loss. Big things are expected from Young this season, as evidenced by his appearance on the All-SEC First Team.

On the other side is Tyler Baron, who returns after a very brief appearance in the transfer portal. Baron made a few big splashes as a true freshman in 2020, finishing a handful of tackles for losses. However, to this point, the light hasn’t really come on for Baron as a true pass rusher.

That’s something that Garner has been focusing on during the offseason, heading into Baron’s junior season.

“He’s got to continue to improve on the little things,” Garner said. “When we’re sitting there watching the film, if you’re going to be a true edge rusher, you can’t put two hands on the tackle. I mean, he’s got to learn to rush with one hand, be able to flip his hips and turn the corner. So he’s got to work on the little things to get better and take his game to that next level. But he’s buying into it. He’s been coachable.”

As important as anything else, Tennessee is looking for leaders to emerge on the defensive line. Replacing Matthew Butler won’t be easy, and these two are being expected to slide into that role this fall. Defensive tackle Omari Thomas will play into that role as well.

Tennessee does have numbers up front, which should help this unit quite a bit. But for this defense, Young and Baron have to take pretty substantial leaps forward.