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Tennessee had to find an answer at edge rusher — they’ve found it in James Pearce

Pearce is a complete gamechanger.

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Spencer Rattler is probably having nightmares about No. 27 screaming off the edge.

James Pearce might have been the best player on the field on Saturday night, nearly single-handedly keeping Rattler under wraps. The sophomore edge rusher was everywhere all night long, forcing Rattler to scramble out of the pocket all night long. It was a far cry from Tennessee’s effort in Columbia last year. Rattler could do anything he wanted on that night, but this meeting was quite the different story.

The pass rush was a bit of a mystery coming into the season, but we at least knew that Tennessee had big talent at edge. The Volunteers have added four 4-star prospects at the position over the last two cycles, they just needed one or two to really emerge. Through five games, Pearce has done that and then some.

“I didn’t see his stats — I just, every time I looked up, I felt like he was affecting the way their quarterback was playing in the pocket and, just relentless, playing with length, fundamentally continuing to get better, has grown as a person outside of the game, which has allowed him to quickly accelerate inside of the game,” Heupel said after the game.

“Playing really well right now. His best football is still a long ways out in front of him too, which is a real compliment to him because he’s playing really well right now.”

The 6-5, 242 pound edge rusher was credited with two sacks against South Carolina, but honestly that number could have been four or five. Pearce came up with nine (!!) quarterback pressures, which led all of college football in week five, per PFF.

Pearce truly has it all, already looking every bit of the part of a first round draft pick. The length, the explosiveness at 240+, the ability to bend and finish, it’s all there for Pearce. And he’s only halfway through year two.

For his efforts against the Gamecocks, Pearce was named the SEC defensive lineman of the week.

Pearce is up to five sacks on the season. Tyler Baron has four, while Aaron Beasley, Kurott Garland and Joshua Josephs all have two. For reference, Byron Young led Tennessee in 2022 with just seven, so this pass rushing group has definitely taken a big step forward so far this year.

Tennessee ranks 25th in total defense. They rank first in the FBS with 4.4 sacks per game (22 on the year through five games). That’s a staggering improvement — a trend the Volunteers are going to need to keep going as they head into the Texas A&M-Alabama-Kentucky stretch.