Vols discover pass rush

On an otherwise dreary, overcast Saturday at Neyland Stadium, Tennessee defensive line coach Dan Brooks noted a glimmer of sunshine. Or maybe it was just a glimmer of hope.

Regardless, his front four mounted a decent pass rush.

That may not send Big Orange fans dancing in the streets but it's a noteworthy achievement for a Vol defense that has taken more heat than it has applied the past few years.

It's true that half of the four sacks in Saturday's scrimmage were recorded by linebackers Adam Myers-White and Nick Reveiz (one each). It's also true that senior end Robert Ayers was the only defensive lineman to record a sack, notching two. But sacks are not the only indication of a pass rush.

Forcing the quarterback to throw before he's ready or to throw the ball away is a positive development, too. That being the case, there were some positive signs Saturday at Neyland Stadium as Tennessee's front four routinely forced hurried and/or errant throws.

"We tried to challenge 'em with that," Brooks said. "We told 'em, 'If you all can do it with four, we'll play it that way. If you can't do it, we've got to do something else.'"

Defensive coordinator John Chavis is not an easy man to please. Even he seemed happy with the pass rush mustered by the front four on Saturday, however.

"I thought our guys rushed the passer as well today as we have in awhile without pressure (from the blitz)," he said. "We mixed in some pressure here and there but we wanted to see where we were with our four-man rush.

"To be honest, it's the best it's been in awhile. It's not where it needs to be – it needs to continue to grow – but I was encouraged by what I saw."

Tennessee mustered just 17 sacks in 2006 and 24 in 2007. The starting ends from those two seasons, Xavier Mitchell and Antonio Reynolds, have exhausted their eligibility. Their first-team spots appear likely to be filled in '08 by rising senior Ayers (6-3, 270) and rising junior Wes Brown (6-4, 256).

Ayers, as noted earlier, recorded two sacks on Saturday. Brown suffered a concussion early in the workout and was withheld from most of the action. In his absence, former High School All-American Ben Martin got a lot of work with the first-team defense.

Because of the pass-rushing potential Ayers, Brown and Martin show, the outlook at end is good, even without Mitchell and Reynolds. Much of the concern about UT's front four focuses on the tackles. Dan Williams had a solid year in 2007 but Demonte Bolden and Walter Fisher were disappointments. They must elevate their play if Tennessee's defense is to improve significantly in 2008.

"We've tried to challenge 'em," Brooks said. "We'll see over the next two weeks if we can get that done.... I think they're making progress. Obviously, we all want to go faster than we are, but I think we are making progress."

The line coach said the greatest strides this spring have been made in the area of "just getting 'em to play with effort consistently."

A big assist in this regard goes to Donald Langley, an energetic 6-2, 285-pound redshirt freshman whose motor never stops.

"Donald Langley's been a positive," Brooks said. "He brings a lot of energy, brings a lot of go. He goes hard every day, and that's what we're looking for."

If Langley can continue to progress, he'll join Williams, Bolden and Fisher to give the Vols a satisfactory four-man tackle rotation. Ideally, Brooks would like to have a five- or six-man rotation. For that to happen, though, junior Chase Nelson and sophomore Victor Thomas need to make dramatic improvement.

"They're getting better," Brooks said. "They're not there yet, but they're getting better. They're coming."

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