In 'Strip' we trust

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The fact senior defensive end Corey Miller thinks Tennessee can break the school sack record this fall suggests two things:

One, he has supreme confidence in defensive line coach Steve Stripling.

Two, he has no idea what the school sack record is.

The record is 50, set in 2000. To break it the 2013 Vols would need to triple last season's sack total of 17, which ranked dead last in the 14-team SEC.

All of the above makes Miller's recent comment that "We want to set the sack record, honestly" sound more like a pipe dream than a realistic goal.

Miller isn't alone in his thinking, however. Senior defensive tackle Maurice Couch agrees that the program sack record is a goal for the 2013 Vols.

"It's a big thing," he said. "We really haven't been one of those teams that competes for the most sacks. But, with the system and what Coach Strip is teaching us, I think it's definitely helping us reach our goal."

Obviously, the chances of Tennessee improving from 17 sacks in 2012 to 51 in 2013 are remote. Given Stripling's background, however, a healthy dose of optimism may be justified.

As defensive line coach at Louisville (2001-02) he helped the Cardinals post the most sacks (96) of any NCAA Div. I-A school during that two-year span. His ace pupil, DeWayne White, was 2002 Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year, set the CUSA record for career sacks and was selected in Round 2 of the 2003 NFL Draft.

As defensive line coach at Michigan (2005-07) Stripling coached LaMarr Woodley, who won the Lombardi Award as the NCAA's premier lineman (offensive or defensive) after recording 12 sacks as a senior. Voted consensus first-team All-America and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Woodley now stars for the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers.

As defensive line coach at Cincinnati (2010-12) Stripling's front four helped the Bearcats rank No. 2 nationally with 3.46 sacks per game in 2011. He molded a lightly regarded two-star tackle signee named Derek Wolfe into a force who posted 9.5 sacks that fall en route to being named Co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year. Tabbed with Pick 36 in the 2012 NFL Draft, Wolfe recorded six sacks as a Denver Broncos rookie last fall.

Given all of the above, it's understandable that Tennessee's players place considerable faith in their first-year D-line coach's knack for pressuring quarterbacks.

"Coach Strip lives and dies by the pass rush," senior defensive end Marlon Walls said this week. "He's a great coach at teaching the technical things – reading wrists, reading heads, reading stance. I think that's going to help us out a whole lot. And he's cutting us loose a little bit. If you're comfortable running a certain game he's going to allow us to do it on the field as long as it works. The day it don't work he's going to step in and put a stop to it.

"He preaches it (pass rush). That's the first thing we watch when we get to the meeting room, so we understand the challenge of it and the sense of urgency about it."

Jacques Smith, another senior defensive end, also believes Stripling will push the right buttons to ensure that Tennessee has a quality pass rush this fall.

"It's going to be great," Smith said. "We've got so many attributes on the defensive line. We've got Big Dan (McCullers) who can take up a double-team and let me rush off the edge. There's Corey Miller on the other side. Mo Couch is a speed rusher off the B gap. Daniel Hood is great with his (pass rush) games and you can run anything with him. We've got some young guys with a lot of speed, too, so you can throw them in the mix – like Jaylen Miller (Gaffney, S.C.) and Corey Vereen (Winter Garden, Fla.).

Basically, Stripling's secret to success isn't really a secret. He is an absolute stickler for details.

"He's just a great technician," Smith said. "He's technical with everything he teaches us. It's all about the little details for us, and that's something we all try to get down. Once we do get it down I think we're going to be a solid defensive line."

Apparently, Stripling has a knack for making pass-rush concepts easy to understand, then repeating those lessons until they become second nature.

"He makes it real simple," Couch said. "We do it every day. It's just watching what he does, then going out there and executing. He just knows what it takes to get to a quarterback."

Miller agreed, noting: "We're going to utilize Coach Strip to the best of our ability because he's one of the best D-line coaches in the nation. We just need to work on our craft each and every day. There can't be a day that slips by."

That's because Tennessee's pass-rush futility is no recent development. The Vols recorded just 17 sacks in 2006, 24 in 2007, 23 in 2008, 21 in 2009, 26 in 2010 and 16 in 2011 before logging 17 last fall. The obvious question: Why has the pass rush been so inept for so long?

"I can't really put my finger on it," said Walls, who has had five D-line coaches in five years on The Hill. "All I can say is he (Stripling) teaches it a lot more than most of the coaches I've had. He's very technical about the pass rush."

Stopping the run is Priority No. 1, of course, but Stripling apparently has made pressuring the passer Priority No. 1A.

"If you can't pass rush you can't be on the field," Walls said. "He teaches it a whole lot and preaches it a whole lot. I think that's where the sense of urgency is, and I think that's the reason we're going to be better. That's something he focuses on."

Smith thinks Vol defenders were denied opportunities to rush the passer in previous seasons.

"Really, just not being able to pin our ears back and go (was the problem)," he said. "That's something this defense allows you to do. You can tell by the statistics of this staff."

Or you can ask Dewayne White. Or LaMarr Woodley. Or Derek Wolfe.

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