KNOXVILLE – It takes several pages of flipping before finding Tennessee in the national rankings for total sacks in 2012.
The Vols were tied for 98th in the nation with 1.42 sacks per game last year, totaling just 17 during their 5-7 campaign.
That’s a problem that might not be fixable in just one spring, but there are some early signs of progress under new defensive coordinator John Jancek and defensive line coach Steve Stripling. The Vols recorded three sacks unofficially in last Saturday’s scrimmage and disrupted the passer multiple other times.
“It’s a process,” said Stripling. “I think our run defense is getting better, but our pass rush is slow to come. Pass rush is more than just running up the field. To get really good at it, you have to develop what we call a pass-rush mentality.
“But to do that, you need to know when it is pass. There’s so much that goes into it – reading the offensive line’s stance, reading the backs, where is the protection turning – and we’re just not to that point yet. Right now we’re just taking baby steps.”
There’s not one identifiable sack master on the field at this point, but both coaches see potential. Ooltewah native and rising senior Jacques Smith has 4.5 career sacks and is settling in as one of the starting defensive ends. He’s always had the potential to be a disruptive pass rusher. The 2013 season will be his last chance to prove he can do it.
“The guys I would term ‘fast-twitch’ are Jacques Smith and Corey Vereen and I think LaTroy Lewis,” said Stripling. “Those guys, we’re not into a lot right now, but getting the right people on the field in the right times will be important to us.”
Jancek likes some of the pressure he’s seen this spring, but wants more from the front four. Blitzes have been getting to the quarterback thus far, but the Vols’ first-year defensive coordinator knows that experienced SEC quarterbacks can pick apart a blitzing D.
“Our four-down pass rush has to get better,” he said. “We don’t have a tremendous edge presence right now. When we blitz, I think we’re doing some good things, but you can’t do that all the time – you have to be able to play coverage on third down and hopefully impact the quarterback with your front four.”
It also helps to have 6-8, 360-pound defensive tackle Daniel McCullers pushing the pocket in passing situations.
Normally known as a run stopper, McCullers batted down a pass from Justin Worley last Saturday to give the defense a stop despite only rushing three on that particular play.
“When Big Dan puts his hand up, he’s about 10-feet tall, so just having him working up the field and mirroring the quarterback could be a great thing in the pass rush,” said Stripling.
Lane’s status in question: Running back Marlin Lane’s status is in question after he missed practice on Thursday.
Running backs coach Robert Gillespie confirmed Lane’s absence, but did not go into details of why he missed, only saying that he’s “not practicing right now.”
Lane also missed last Tuesday’s practice for what head coach Butch Jones termed a family health issue. Jones was not made available for comment on the issue on Thursday.
Lane was the team’s second-leading rusher in 2012 with 658 yards to go along with two touchdowns. He started six games after an injury to Rajion Neal.
Other Injuries/Absences: Offensive lineman Tiny Richardson, cornerback Tino Thomas, receiver Jacob Carter, tight end Justin Meredith, linebacker Curt Maggitt, receiver Paul Harris, receiver Vincent Dallas, defensive tackle Maurice Couch and safety Jalen Reeves-Maybin were all non-contact on Thursday.
Jason Croom hurt his hamstring during practice and did not finish, according to wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni. The Vols are down to four healthy, scholarship wide receivers: Pig Howard, Drae Bowles, Cody Blanc and Devrin Young.
Linebacker John Propst was back at practice after missing Tuesday. Eric Gordon remains away from practice.
Notes and observations:
. It was a rough day for cornerback Riyahd Jones, who was beaten in multiple 1-on-1 situations. Defensive backs coach Willie Martinez had several harsh words for him during practice.
. The first-team offensive line had a completely new look on Thursday: Ja’Wuan James was at left tackle, James Stone was at left guard, Alex Bullard played center, Marcus Jackson played right guard and Zach Fulton worked at right tackle.
. Nathan Peterman threw a nice 25-yard completion to walk-on (and former UTC player) wide receiver Spencer Mackle during the team period.
. Though not typically known as a scrambling quarterback, Justin Worley had a nice run on a zone-read keeper during the team period.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga