Tennessee Football was once known as being a school that could produce top-flight pass rushers. History seems to be repeating itself. As for linebacker, the Vols seem to be re-visiting the past at that position as well.
On Saturday, the Vols’ front seven was dominant in their 49-13 win over the Virginia Cavaliers. They registered four sacks and 11 tackles for a loss as they constantly attacked the Cavs’ backfield, led by Tyler Baron and James Pearce Jr., who both had two sacks apiece.
When asked about Baron, who had just 2 1/2 sacks all of last season, Tennessee Football defensive coordinator Tim Banks said, “It’s just being healthy. Tyler’s healthy. He’s always had the potential to be one of the elite players in this conference. And having a chance to keep him healthy is job No. 1 for us and for him as well. I think as long as he stays healthy and stays with the mindset and the intent that he has, we expect him to have a tremendous season for us moving forward.”
Baron has suffered various, nagging injuries while at UT. Fellow EDGE rusher James Pearce, Jr., faced a different challenge last season. Maturity as a freshman in 2022 was his biggest hurdle. That hasn’t been an issue so far in 2022.
“We’re very confident in James,” Banks said. “His growth has been great for us. We saw it last year, him starting to make some strides and he made some even better strides during the spring. So we’re not surprised with the display that he put on this weekend…That’s why we recruited him. He’s a great kid who’s only gonna get better. And I think he’ll be the first one to tell you that.”
As good as Tennessee’s pass rushers off the edge were against Virginia, let’s not forget about Tennessee’s linebackers, starting with middle linebacker Keenan Pili, who was awarded with the game ball following the Vols’ win.
Despite having just four tackles, he was singled out by the Tennessee Football coaching staff because of his consistent play, which begins with getting all the Vols lined up correctly. Then, there’s Aaron Beasley, who had just three tackles, but in a limited effort since most starters were pulled early in the third quarter.
The Vols’ other linebackers also were ever-present against the Cavs. Sophomore Elijah Herring led Tennessee Football in tackles with five takedowns. Freshman Arion Carter registered four tackles.
“I thought it was good,” Banks said when asked about the underclassmen. “No. 1, just getting good healthy reps. For AC (Arion Carter), his first collegiate game opportunity, just like any freshman there’s some things that we know he’ll continue to grow in and get better at, but just having an opportunity to see him fly around was great. As far as Elijah goes, he’s obviously played some football for us last year, but just to see his growth and his maturity on display, we’re really pleased with what they did Saturday.”
That’s not all Banks had to say about the dynamic, young duo.
“As far as Arion and Elijah, what they bring to the table individually, I would say with AC just sheer athleticism,” Banks said. “You guys know his story, obviously a running back in high school and started trending as a linebacker late in his career, so he’s still learning, but just his overall athleticism, his ball awareness (are) things that are hard to teach. We think, as he continues to get reps, he continues to develop, he has a chance to be a really good player in this league.
“As far as Elijah goes, he’s a classic Mike ‘backer. He’s got great size for the position, he’s extremely physical…We saw flashes of it Saturday. Just the growth in terms of knowing what to expect and being the right place at the right time. Just overall size he brings to the position, particularly with some of the pressure that we run. We’d like to think that we got a chance to win versus some of the backs that we’ll see.”