Turning Up the Heat

A close examination of Tennessee's season reveals a glaring need for a better running game and better run defense, but lurking in the shadows is another deficiency that, while not as obvious, is every bit as injurious to the Vols' football fortunes.

The underlying problem plaguing UT's pigskin prospects has to do with the pass rush and can be succinctly summed up: If you want to be at the top of the heap you have to be able to bring the heat.

Tennessee began the season with 10 sacks in the first four games and finished the season with one sack in the last four games. It's no coincidence that UT has four interceptions in the first four games and only two in the last four games. Both INTs came against Vanderbilt as the Vols didn't have any picks against Arkansas, Kentucky or Penn State.

Tennessee finished the 2006 season with 17 sacks in 13 games. That's the fewest sacks the Vols have recorded since 1988 when they had 14 sacks in a 5-6 season. In Phillip Fulmer's first 11 full seasons (1993 to 2001) the Vols averaged 38.3 sacks per season with a high of 50 in 2000 and a total of 92 in 1999 and 2000 combined.

UT's individual sack leader was Jerod Mayo with five and eight of Tennessee's 17 sacks came from linebackers a safety. What's more revealing is the fact UT's interior linemen accounted for only three sacks during the entire season. Furthermore, Xavier Mitchell (four sacks) is the only Tennessee defensive lineman to record more than one sack in a 13-game season.

Once upon a time Tennessee could rotate pass rushers in waves. Take the 1999 D-Line that featured starters Shaun Ellis and Will Overstreet at the ends and John Henderson, Billy Ratliff, Darwin Walker and Albert Haynesworth at the tackles. Or the 1995 D-line that showcased the talents of such accomplished pass rushers as Leonard Little, Steve White and Shane Burton.

A great pass rush does a lot more to offenses than make quarterbacks nervous and leads. It essentially forces the offensive line into a defensive mindset. It disrupts timing, causes penalties, creates havoc and leads to turnovers. For instance: In 2000 when the Vols had 50 sacks they also had 14 fumble recoveries. This year Tennessee had three fumble recoveries despite playing two more games.

It's been a while since Tennessee has had a real impact defensive end, a player that required offenses to adjust and made offensive tackles twitchy. There have been solid players like Jason Hall, Parys Harlason and Mitchell, but no Todd Kelly, James Wilson, Chuck Smith or Chris Mims types.

There's a good chance Gerald Williams will finally gain admission at UT which should help. There are also a couple of high potential defensive ends the Vols are recruiting this year. The most exciting is Carlos Dunlap of Fort Dorchester High School in North Charleston, S.C. Dunlap has seen his stock steadily rise all season and is currently ranked No. 7 among the nation's DE crop. The athletic Dunlap, who is said to be pushing the 6-foot-8 mark weighs 245 pounds and runs a 4.70 time in the 40. He is rated a five-star prospect.

Dunlap visits Tennessee on Jan. 12 and Florida on Jan. 9. He makes the Gamecocks a slight favorite over the Gators and Vols, but rates that SEC East Division trio as his favorites.

The Vols are still pursuing No. 17 ranked Sidell Corley of Mobile, Ala., who recently committed to Florida but is still considering Auburn, Alabama, Oklahoma as well as UT, although the Big Orange appear to be a long shot. Oddly enough Corley is playing in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl on Saturday while Dunlap was not selected for the prestigious post season contest.

Tennessee is still in the hunt for Alcoa defensive end Rae Sykes, although he is believed to favor LSU. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound Sykes runs a 4.75 and is ranked No. 29 at his position by Scout.com.

Outside the high school ranks the Vols are chasing JC talent Alex Cook of Brenham, Texas, and Miguel Chavis of Hargrave Military. UT is also working to hold on to a commitment from Rufus Williams, 6-3, 240, 4.70, of Titusville, Fla. He is ranked No. 41 at his position.

IT will be reporting later today from the U.S. Army Bowl in San Antonio, Texas.

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