Josh Heupel and Tim Banks both touted Tennessee Football linebackers in Keenan Pili and Aaron Beasley. While their leadership is certainly valuable, they clearly don’t want to have to rely on them as much as they relied on linebackers.
The Vols head coach and defensive coordinator both emphasized the needs of edge rushers to step it up a notch. This was part of their overall goal to bring more pressure without blitzing the linebackers.
“At the end of the spring, I felt like we made some real strides in that (with) a lot of our guys that were back and a part of our program,” Heupel said. “We’ve had a couple of new guys that came in here in late May and early June too, (I) anticipate those guys continuing to learn what we’re doing but playing with great technique and competing for a spot.”
Last year, the inability to get pressure severely limited the Vols. When Jeremy Banks missed their matchup at the South Carolina Gamecocks, they couldn’t run as many stunts and blitz packages with the linebackers.
Heupel touted the improved depth up front, at the tackle spots and among the edge rushers, as a reason for optimism that Tennessee Football will be better at bringing pressure with their line. Fall camp is about proving that.
“Looking forward to great competition,” Heupel said. “Looking forward to us continuing to develop in our ability to affect the quarterback and not doing that with pressures all the time, but being able to do it with the four guys up front.”
Central to this focus is the edge rushers. Tennessee Football lost an NFL Draft pick in Byron Young. They return Tyler Baron, who has been a fixture up front the past two years, and Roman Harrison.
Baron has 13.5 tackles for a loss and six and a half sacks over the past two years, but expectations are for him to become a superstar. He was the primary edge rusher entering 2021 before Young took over. Banks emphasized the need for Baron to stay healthy.
“Tyler has always had the talent, the God-given talent,” Banks said. “He’s arguably one of our better players on our defense in general, not just up front. He’s long. He’s athletic. I think the biggest thing for him, it’s just kind of one of those things, he’s been banged up a ton. “
As the clear backup to Baron and Young, Harrison really emerged last year due to injuries, and he finished with seven tackles for a loss and three sacks. Then he stood out even more in the spring.
Because of that, Harrison, once a four-star recruit way back in 2019, should be able to step in and help Baron fill the void left by Young. Banks stressed his need to play with more consistency.
“Roman has played a lot of football for us,” he said. “It’s funny because when you go back through the cut-ups, obviously BY (Byron Young) had a tremendous season for us, and he’ll be greatly missed, but Roman showed some flashes. He’s probably pound-for-pound one of the tougher players in this conference.”
Pressure from the tackle spots is also crucial to this, though. The Vols lose LaTrell Bumphus, but they return Omari Thomas. Arizona State Sun Devils transfer Omarr Norman-Lott is also a major threat up front.
Add in Bryson Eason, Kurott Garland, Tyre West and Elijah Simmons, and Rodney Garner has plenty to work with. If the edge rushers and tackles develop over last year, Beasley and Pili will be free to do a lot more.
“That’s obviously what we’re building toward,” Banks said. “We feel very good about the number of guys that we have returning. Obviously, we feel like we’ve recruited at a high level, and we have some young players that are going to get some opportunity to show what they can do, but just like anything, it’s a work in progress.”