UT's sad sack totals

As Tennessee's sack totals go down, the frustration level goes up.

It might be harder now than ever to tackle a quarterback on a pass attempt. Offenses have gone to a three-step drop, a short passing game and maximum protection. Quarterbacks are under orders to get rid of the ball rather than take a drive-killing sack.

That's one reason UT quarterback Erik Ainge has only been sacked two times.

It's also a reason Tennessee's defensive linemen – and coaches – are frustrated.

Three times in six seasons under defensive coordinator John Chavis, Tennessee set sack records, driving the total from 42 in 1995 to 47 in 1997 to 50 in 2000. Over an 11-year period, Chavis averaged 36.3 sacks per season.

Last year, the sack total was 17.

This year, through eight games, the sack total is 10. It ranks last in the SEC and 97th in the nation.

``Its' definitely harder to get sacks,'' said Steve Caldwell, UT defensive ends coach. ``The game has changed. We talk about it all the time. You're getting a lot more guys sitting back in the (shot)gun and as soon as they get it, they take about one snap count and get rid of the ball.''

That's caused UT to coach the pass rush differently. Linemen have to get their hands up and hope they're in the passing lane.

Some quarterbacks get rid of the ball so quickly, a lineman can come clean yet still not record a sack.

Caldwell not only wants his linemen to get their hands up, he wants them hustling down field after the throw.

``With as many underneath routes as you see, you try to strip the ball (from behind) or get a turnover or cause one (with pursing linemen),'' Caldwell said.

Caldwell remembers the time the Vols got 13 sacks against Wyoming in 1999. The next meeting, UT had none.

``We didn't touch the quarterback,'' Caldwell said. ``Their coach said we're not going to take a sack.''

After Vanderbilt sacked South Carolina seven times on Oct. 20, Caldwell said Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier told his quarterbacks it's better to throw an incompletion than take a sack. UT got two sacks.

``Coaches are smart,'' Caldwell said. ``Quarterbacks are smart. They're going to try not to take a sack.''

Caldwell said Louisiana-Lafayette, UT's homecoming opponent this Saturday, has allowed just 12 sacks.

By the same token, UT has allowed a nation's best three sacks.

``When you've got a good, mature quarterback, he knows when to get rid of the football,'' Caldwell said. ``Some guys have a great feel for pressure.''

And some guys are just tough to sack. Take Kentucky's Jared Lorenzen. He weighed over 300 pounds. He was not only strong, he was nimble enough to avoid pass rushers. And LSU's JaMarcus Russell played against UT at 6-6, 273 pounds. He was like trying to tackle a tree trunk.

Of course, some of the sack concerns relate to the secondary. If cornerbacks are playing 8 to 12 yards off the line of scrimmage, it's easy for an opposing quarterback to complete short routes against pressure.

While some UT coaches say the defensive backs aren't playing any softer than usual, it's obvious that they are. Phillip Fulmer said he's hoping, with more experience, they'll become more aggressive.

Secondary coach Larry Slade said press coverage is in the works.

``They're capable of doing that,'' Slade said. ``You'll see more of it.''

Until then, don't look for UT's sack total to skyrocket.

Also, with three newcomers starting in the secondary, the Vols aren't able to be as complex with coverages.

``If it's the first time you line up back there, you're going to try to do as few things as you can to not have busts and not give up big plays,'' Caldwell said. ``That's the big thing, because if one of those guys has a bust, odds are he (receiver) is going to hit his head on the goal post.''


Slade said the defensive backs – despite the criticism and passing yards allowed – remain confident.

``If you came to practice, you would see that,'' Slade said.

Of course, practice is closed to the media, except for about the first 30 minutes.


Tennessee is clearly a better team when it runs the football.

In the Vols' five wins, UT has averaged 38 rush attempts per game for 176.6 yards. In the three defeats, UT has averaged 22.3 run attempts for 83.7 yards per game.

Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe said Super Bowl coach Dick Vermeil said you have to be patient with the run. Cutcliffe hasn't been.

He's given up too quickly on the run in three games – California, Alabama and South Carolina. Against the Gamecocks, UT gained 12 yards on its fist 10 runs, then averaged 5.6 yards on its next 15 runs. But in the second half of regulation, UT passed on 21 of its 25 snaps.

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