Tennessee coach Butch Jones yells to his squad during spring practice Saturday in Knoxville. (AP Photo)
KNOXVILLE — When Tennessee football coach Butch Jones discusses his team's need for playmakers, he isn't merely referring to running backs or wide receivers.
"When you think of playmakers, automatically our minds go to offense," Jones said. "But defensively, who is going to be able to rush and generate our pass rush when we need it?"
For the last few years, Tennessee's struggled to find anyone to fill that role.
Tennessee has posted the fewest sacks in the Southeastern Conference each of the last two years and has averaged only 17 sacks over the last three seasons. Now the Volunteers must replace all four starting defensive linemen from last year's team.
"We're definitely working toward (improving) it, and we're going to get it corrected," senior defensive end Jordan Williams said.
Last year's results illustrate the importance of a strong pass rush for Tennessee. The Vols had 14 sacks in their five wins and only four sacks in their seven losses.
Tennessee's roster doesn't include anyone who recorded more than 1 sacks last season. Williams has the most career sacks on the team with only 4. Even though senior linebacker A.J. Johnson has made 324 tackles over the last three seasons, he realizes he must make more big plays.
"I've only got one sack since I've been here," Johnson said. "That's one thing I'm hunting for. I'm hunting (to) get some sacks. And if somebody throws the ball around me, I've got to get the pick. I don't have one of those yet. Those are two things I'm working on to reach."
Although Johnson is UT's only returning starter from last year's front seven, the defense could benefit from continuity elsewhere.
Tennessee went from a 4-3 defense in 2011 to a 3-4 in 2012 before going back to the 4-3 last season. Now the Vols are working with the same scheme and the same staff as a year ago. Williams noted this is the first year he's had the same position coach in back-to-back seasons.
"Last year we had to learn the tempo, how coach wanted us to work, the drills, the transition between drills," Williams said. "Now, everything's just clockwork."
The Vols also say their athleticism will make up for their inexperience.
"I know I can make some plays," junior linebacker Curt Maggitt said. "I know A.J. can make some plays. We've got some playmakers on defense — Jordan Williams, Corey Vereen. We've just got to get some experience and camaraderie with the new guys coming in."
Maggitt's return is one reason for Tennessee's optimism. Maggitt produced a sack and forced a fumble that resulted in a safety in a 2012 season-opening victory over North Carolina State, but the two-year starter has rarely been fully healthy since.
After missing the entire 2013 season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, Maggitt says he's back at 100 percent. Jones has discussed having the versatile Maggitt occasionally line up in a three-point stance and rush the passer.
Vereen's presence offers more cause for hope.
As a freshman last year, Vereen applied the pressure on a fourth-and-goal situation that led to a game-clinching interception against South Alabama. Early in his freshman season, Vereen already was being mentioned as the one of the team's best speed rushers. Vereen takes motivation from the fact he wasn't recruited as heavily as he wanted.
"Every day I go out there, I think about that," Vereen said. "If I'm having a day where I'm not as motivated, I always go back and look at that and think about how I felt at that time — all the anger, all the passion that I felt."
If he takes out those frustrations on opposing quarterbacks, Tennessee might avoid a third straight last-place finish in the SEC sack totals.comments powered by Disqus