Tennessee defensive line coach Rodney Garner isn’t one to mess around. Whether it be on the practice field or behind the podium during a press conference, he’s going to tell it how it is. He’s also going to get every ounce of you as a player, which is why he’s had such a long career as a defensive assistant.
His latest projects include Elijah Simmons and Tyler Baron — two guys with big talent who haven’t quite shown the consistency to this point. Garner offered a glimpse at both ahead of the 2023 season this week.
“Elijah, he is a powerful, big man,” Garner said. “He does have initial quickness, short-area quickness. He’s got built-in pad level and leverage. He’s just got to learn to — his biggest enemy is when fatigue sets in.”
Simmons famously arrived in Knoxville as a mountain of a prospect needing some refinement. He’s worked over the past few years to get there, but really hasn’t played a significant role just yet. Despite that, Simmons changed his number to 10 ahead of his redshirt senior season — a move that Garner jabbed him a bit for this week.
“When he gets tired — I mean, everybody knows he switched his number to 10,” Garner continued. “And like I’m saying, if you’re a D-lineman wearing 10, you need to be elite. So my challenge to him: Sometimes 10 shows up to practice. Sometimes 51 shows up. So we’ve just got to figure out who you are and what you want to be. 10 and 51 are different guys, so if he’s going to be 10, then he needs to get himself in really, really good shape and be able to play out the whole game like 10.”
Playing alongside of Simmons for the past few years has been Tyler Baron — a guy who came in with a lot of expectations. The local product and former four-star prospect has been a mainstay on the Tennessee defensive line for the past three seasons, but it certainly feels like there’s another level left to be unlocked.
Garner sees progress ahead of his senior season.
“I think he’s matured a lot, and I think he’s grown as a young man, and I think he’s bought in more to the team concept,” Garner explained. “And I think he’s being more of a team guy, more of a Tennessee guy than a Tyler guy. And then I think he’s starting to see that, if Tennessee does well, then Tyler Baron’s going to do well. But if Tennessee does poorly, then odds are Tyler Baron’s not going to do as well. And that’s everybody.”
Interesting comments there from Garner, especially considering Baron’s odd and brief entry into the transfer portal following the 2021 season. All of that’s in the past now though, and Baron seems prepared to be a leader once again on this Tennessee defensive line.
Baron logged 22 tackles — 6.5 for loss while adding 2.5 sacks during the 2022 campaign. The 6-5, 260 pound defensive end has a potential NFL future ahead of him, but he’ll need to show some more production as a senior. Following the loss of Byron Young to the NFL, Tennessee could use an uptick in Baron’s pass rushing to fill some voids.
Expect Dominic Bailey and Tyre West to form a rotation with Baron at the defensive end spot, while Tennessee leans on Roman Harrison and some youth at the LEO position.
It’s going to be interesting to see how this front looks a little under a month from now, as Tennessee gets set to take on Virginia in Nashville on September 2nd.