KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s pass rush has continued thriving despite the exit of Philadelphia Eagles first-round draft pick Derek Barnett, the school’s career sack leader.
The Volunteers recorded seven sacks in a 17-13 victory over Massachusetts last week for their highest single-game total since 2008. Six different players posted at least half a sack in that game.
“We know it was going to be difficult to replace a player that’s the all-time leading sack (record) holder at the University of Tennessee,” defensive end Kyle Phillips said. “We just know we’ve got to do it as a team. I think last week was a big step for us.”
Tennessee now must build off that performance. Putting consistent pressure on freshman quarterback Jake Fromm would give the Vols (3-1, 0-1 SEC) a much better shot at upsetting No. 7 Georgia (4-0, 1-0).
Georgia’s offensive line represents arguably the toughest challenge of the season thus far for a Tennessee defense that already has accomplished quite a bit in rebuilding its pass rush.
“The beauty of college football is it’s (about) new opportunities,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “We’ve had some individuals really step up.”
Tennessee not only had to replace Barnett , whose 33 sacks in three seasons at Tennessee broke Reggie White’s school record . The Vols also had to make up for the losses of Corey Vereen and LaTroy Lewis, who completed their eligibility last season.
Barnett, Vereen and Lewis combined for 22 ½ sacks and 34 ½ tackles for loss last season. Tennessee’s current roster has nobody who collected more than 2 ½ sacks last year.
“We’ve had to find creative ways to rush the passer,” defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said.
The UMass game was a good indicator of the group effort.
Defensive linemen Jonathan Kongbo, Kahlil McKenzie and Alexis Johnson each recorded one sack in that game. The Vols got half a sack from defensive tackle Kendal Vickers.
But the Vols aren’t relying on the front four to provide all the pressure.
For example, linebacker Colton Jumper led the Vols with 2 ½ sacks last week and has a team-high 3 ½ sacks this year. Those are impressive totals for a senior who had no career sacks before this season.
The secondary also has contributed to Tennessee’s pass rush.
“Rashaan Gaulden’s one of our more productive players, and he’s a very good blitzer,” Shoop said of the junior defensive back. “Jumper really did a good job as a pass blitzer the other day, and (linebacker Elliott) Berry did, too. But Darrell Taylor, Kongbo and Phillips all have a knack for getting to the quarterback.”
Tennessee got only one sack in its first two games, largely due to the types of offenses it faced. Georgia Tech and Indiana State combined for just 29 pass attempts against the Vols.
The pass rush has stepped up since with two sacks in a 26-20 loss to No. 21 Florida and the seven sacks against UMass. Tennessee hadn’t recorded as many as seven sacks in a single game since a 20-10 victory over Vanderbilt in 2008.
It’s worth noting that Massachusetts has allowed the most sacks of any Football Bowl Subdivision program this season. Tennessee’s defense will have a much tougher time getting to the quarterback this week.
Georgia hasn’t allowed any sacks in its last two games. That includes a 31-3 triumph last week over No. 24 Mississippi State, which was ranked 17th at the time. Jones calls the Bulldogs’ offensive line one of the most improved aspects of Georgia’s team.
“I think we did good against Mississippi State in pass protection, but we can do better, a lot better,” Georgia center Lamont Gaillard said. “This week we just have to focus on us, not really them. But they have good defensive players and we’ll learn from them. We just have to be ready for this week.”
AP Sports Writer Charles Odum in Athens, Georgia, contributed to this report.