Photo by Adam Brimer, copyright © 2011 // Buy this photo
In 2010, Tennessee had five more sacks than Florida, one more than Georgia, the same as Mississippi State and just one fewer than Alabama.
Unfortunately for the Vols, there was no direct correlation with wins and losses.
Derek Dooley was the first to address that throughout the year, and he did so again Tuesday. Not even when the Vols racked up 16 sacks in their final five games was he ready to anoint UT's defensive line as a mildly disruptive force.
"I don't think we ever affected the quarterback," Dooley said.
The Vols racked up 26 sacks in 2010. That's five more than they did in 2009, nine more than 2006 and the most since they posted 33 in 2005.
They also notched 44 quarterback hurries, a stat that sometimes can be tabulated subjectively, but also provides an indication of just how much duress the opposing quarterback is facing in a game.
"Our goal is affect the quarterback every game," Dooley said. "You can affect him a lot of ways. You can hit him. If a guy gets hit and doesn't get sacked, but he gets hit and knocked on his tail 15 times, there's a good chance the accuracy is going to diminish.
"Hitting him, sacking him, disguising coverages, confusing him, all those things contribute to affecting a quarterback in a negative way. That's what our goal is on defense."
That's exactly what the Vols will try to do in their season opener against Montana on Saturday (TV: pay-per-view, 6 p.m.). They just won't be shooting to clear last year's sack total in a single game, as the Grizzlies' fast-paced, spread offense can, and will, dupe overzealous pass rushers who forget that there are other ways to play sound defense without sacking the quarterback.
"It's really tough, especially when you get into the two-minute (drill) and you're thinking pass, pass, pass," sophomore defensive end Jacques Smith said. "The next thing you know they hit their draw or something of that sorts. It's really tough and we practice it every day.
"Day in and day out and that's something we've really been emphasizing in our practices, so I think I'll be prepared for it."
Despite losing ends Chris Walker and Gerald Williams to graduation and not exactly replacing them with ready-made bodies for 2011, UT's defensive line has been a source of cautious optimism throughout August.
The consistent pressure brought by UT's four-man front, which simply wasn't there in 2010 unless linebackers were involved, was brought up by Dooley after all three of UT's scrimmages.
Players such as Smith and defensive tackle Malik Jackson are expected to anchor the unit. Fifth-year senior Ben Martin, back from his second Achilles tendon tear since posting 3.5 sacks in 2009, has been one of the best comeback stories in the SEC. Willie Bohannon (for his pass-rushing abilities) and Marlon Walls (for run-stuffing situations) each appear to have found a specific role within the unit.
Tack on freshman linebacker Curt Maggitt, who will play defensive end on obvious passing downs when the Vols implement their nickel package, and the Vols appear to be deeper, if nothing else, than last season.
"That's going to help," Dooley said. "We don't have to blitz all the time."
Smith, at the left end position, is expected to be the cornerstone player on the line. A player former defensive line coach Chuck Smith once described as a future NFL first-round draft pick, Smith never started as a freshman, but he picked up valuable snaps throughout the year and finished with two sacks.
Even in those two moments, Smith immediately noticed what kind of impact he had on the rest of the game.
"The offense is totally affected," Smith said. "The quarterback doesn't make as clear of decisions as once before. You can definitely tell he's more hesitant in the pocket, he's not that much more likely to scramble and things like that. He's easily going to cough up the ball."
Smith's sack goal for himself and his fellow defensive linemen is a modest 15, which is five fewer than what UT's front four mustered last year.
Of course, that final sack tally won't tell the complete story.
"Everybody's getting really good," Smith said. "We have a lot of good outside rushers we can rotate. That's always a good thing.
"That keeps fresh bodies on the field and keeps pressure on the quarterback so he's not sitting back there and just picking us off."