The Big Orange ranks 11th among the 12 SEC schools in sacks, averaging just 1.0 per game through the first three contests. This helps explain why the Vols are ninth in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert 34.9 percent of the time. The inability to hurry the quarterback is giving foes way too much time to find an open receiver on third-down situations.
Now for the good news: Even with no semblance of a pass rush to date, Tennessee ranks fourth among SEC teams in pass defense efficiency and fifth in passing yards allowed (151.7 per game).
If Tennessee's pass defense is that solid while getting no pressure on the quarterback, how good could it be if the Vols ever figure out how to collapse the pocket? Tennessee's players hope to answer that question this weekend vs. UAB.
"We definitely have to work on our pass rush," senior linebacker LaMarcus Thompson said. "We're doing that this week. We're making an emphasis on that. Coach has talked about that, and we're going to get better with that."
A major problem last weekend was Florida tailback Jeff Demps, arguably the fastest player in college football. If you blitz against the Gators, they'll just toss the ball to Demps in the flat and let him race 30 or 40 yards downfield.
"It definitely was a concern with his speed," Thompson conceded. "He's a very fast and shifty back. They run a lot of quick passes, so we had to do a lot of max coverage (seven guys playing the pass) and we ran a lot of nickel package (five defensive backs in the lineup)."
Respect for Demps' world-class speed clearly made the Vol defense a bit tentative last weekend. Since UAB lacks that type of explosive weapon, Tennessee defenders can be more aggressive and reckless in their pass rush this weekend.
"There's got to be times in a game where they've got to pin their ears back and go at the quarterback," head coach Derek Dooley said. "And it looks like sometimes we're just searching a little bit: Is it play action? Is it a run? Is the back peeling? You've just got to go and disrupt. Maybe that will help them."
Another factor that will help Tennessee's pass rush is to get senior defensive end Chris Walker more involved. He is by far the Vols' best pass rusher, yet he has just one hurry and zero sacks to show for the first three games.
"We need to get Chris going a little bit in pass rush," Dooley conceded.
That challenge falls to Vol defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. Known for his ability to disrupt offenses with an amazing assortment of bells and whistles, Wilcox tried several blitzes vs. Florida and may dig even deeper into his bag of tricks this Saturday.
"We probably need to do more different stuff or keep changing it up," Dooley said. "But they (Gators) blocked us when we rushed four, and they blocked us when we pressured. We just had a hard time getting back there, and then we couldn't hold up in coverage."
Even with no hint of a pass rush, however, the Vols limited Florida to 167 passing yards. That provides a ray of hope for the future.