Lowered expectations

Sacks have become so hard to come by, Tennessee's defensive coaches have adjusted their goals.

Nowadays, 30 is a reasonable number, not 40. And a quarterback hurry – forcing an incompletion – is almost as important as a sack.

Mobile quarterbacks and three-step drops have made it harder than ever to corral the passer.

Those are two reasons UT's sack totals have plummeted from an average of 33.4 from 1991-2005 to an average of 20.5 the past two seasons.

Another reason, of course, could be personnel. The Vols don't have the quality pass rushers now that they did the previous seasons.

Tennessee recorded 24 sacks in 14 games last season. That's terrific compared to the four sacks allowed. But it pales in comparison to the 50 sacks in 2000 and the 47 in 1997.

``We want to get it back into the 30s,'' said Tennessee defensive ends coach Steve Caldwell. ``The day of getting 50 sacks, I don't think you'll see that. We still would like to average at least three a game, but that's going to be tough to do.''

Three per game – based on a 13-game season – would be 39.

UT averaged 1.7 last year.

In both 2006 and 2007, only one SEC team had more than 30 sacks during the regular season.

That has led UT to adjust its goals.

``There's no doubt,'' Caldwell said. ``You look at how many times in the (Outback) bowl game we hit the (Wisconsin) quarterback, the difference that made.

``Yes we want more sacks, but any time you can harass the quarterback … anytime you're in his face and collapsing the pocket (that helps).''

So, will Tennessee be a better pass-rushing team this season? Will the sack numbers improve despite losing starting defensive ends Xavier Mitchell (two sacks) and Antonio Reynolds (three)?

Answer: Perhaps.

Caldwell said UT will have more speed at the ends, but not as much experience.

Defensive end Robert Ayers led the Vols with four sacks last season while coming off the bench. He also led the team with 12 tackles for loss. I thought he was UT's best defensive end.

Don't be surprised if Ayers records at least eight sacks.

``Robert's got a knack for making big plays,'' Caldwell said. ``He knows the system so he's not having to think as much. He can go out and use his athletic ability. And there might be times we turn him loose on the pass rush and have someone else cover for him.''

But he might not get much help.

Caldwell said Wes Brown is faster than Ayers in the 40-yard dash but he had only half a sack last year.

``Wes is coming on and doing some things better,'' Caldwell said.

So are sophomores-to-be Ben Martin and Chris Walker.

``I'm excited about getting them out there this spring and seeing where they're at,'' Caldwell said. ``Both have put on a little weight (Martin said he's gained 20 pounds). Both of them grew up some in the fall. Overall we're going to have more speed. Now, we're going to miss that experience. Hopefully the athletic ability of those two young guys will make up for that.

``It's been so exciting to watch those two young guys come out and practice the way they do. Normally you've got to teach young guys how to practice, but those two guys come with a great amount of energy and enthusiasm and upside. Both of them have great height and long arms.''

Caldwell said Martin must learn to play with better pad leverage.

``He was so athletic in high school, he could run around people and make plays,'' Caldwell said. ``Of course, now he's playing against some of best offensive linemen in the country in the SEC. He's learning how to play the game.''

Generating a pass rush isn't totally the responsibility of the defensive ends.

The tackles must help by forging a pass rush up the middle. And the overall defense must help by forcing the opponent into obvious passing situations. You won't get many sacks on second-and-4.

UT returns both starting defensive tackles, but Demonte Bolden and Dan Williams each had two sacks. And they didn't consistently force the quarterback out of the pocket with a middle rush.

``We absolutely do,'' defensive line coach Dan Brooks said, when asked about the need to improve the pass rush from the tackle position.

``The first thing we've to do is stop the run and get them in long-yardage situations.''

Brooks believes he's got three reliable tackles – Bolden, Williams and Walter Fisher.

``Fisher might have been as active as anybody, even though he might not have had the numbers,'' Brooks said.

If the tackles don't mount a rush, look for Ayers to be inserted inside on passing downs because the defense can't afford to have another sub-par year when it comes to sacks.

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