Three crucial seconds

A typical Tennessee football game lasts three hours, yet the key to most games lasts just three seconds.

If Vol defenders can get to the opposing quarterback in that amount of time, they figure he'll either take a sack or throw the ball so hurriedly that it will be intercepted or fall incomplete. Should the QB get four seconds or more, however, that gives him time to scan the field and find his most open receiver. This puts considerable pressure on Tennessee's secondary, so limiting the quarterback to three seconds in the pocket can make life much easier for Vol defensive backs.

"It'll help a lot," said senior defensive end Robert Ayers, UT's best pass rusher. "Right now the secondary looks like it's the strength of the team. We want to help those guys not have to cover four or five seconds. We want them to cover no more than three seconds.

"If we get to the quarterback in three seconds and make him throw the ball, we feel like the talent we've got back there (secondary) will make plays. We don't want them to be in situations where they're running with a receiver for four, five or six seconds. That's not good. That'll get you beat."

Indeed. A weak pass rush contributed significantly to all four of Tennessee's 2007 losses. California completed 19 of 28 passes for 247 yards and two touchdowns in a 45-31 Game 1 pasting of UT. Florida completed 14 of 19 throws for 299 yards and two TDs in a 59-20 Game 3 annihilation of the Vols. Alabama completed 32 of 46 passes for 363 yards and three TDs in a 41-17 Game 7 drubbing of Tennessee. LSU completed 21 of 33 throws for 252 yards and a TD in beating the Vols 21-14 in the SEC Championship Game. The Big Orange managed one sack each against Alabama and LSU, zero against Cal and Florida.

Although Tennessee finished the '07 season with a half-decent total of 24 sacks, most of those came in three games – Kentucky (6), Arkansas State (4) and Wisconsin (3).

The obvious question: What must the front four do to upgrade its pass rush in 2008?

"Just come out every day in practice and listen to Coach Caldwell," Ayers said, referring to defensive ends coach Steve Caldwell. "He's one of the best coaches in the country ... So are Coach (Dan) Brooks, Coach (John) Chavis and Coach (Larry) Slade.

"If we just listen to our coaches in practice, everything else will fall into place. If we feed in to what they tell us and play as a unit, we'll be all right."

Of course, the Vol defense was "all right" last fall. Tennessee fans are hoping for better than that in 2008. Can the Vols deliver?

"You never know," Ayers said. "Every year you've got guys who are rated No. 1 that never turn out to be that way. And you've got guys who are the last of the bunch who turn out to be the best.

"We don't know what we've got compared to other schools. All we can do is go by what we see in practice. Come Sept. 1, we'll find out what we can do."

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