Last week, I took a by-the-numbers look at Tennessee’s passing game. SEC stats from 2012 through 2014 (post-expansion) showed that the Volunteers are in for a long year if they can’t up their yards-per-pass-attempt average. Soon.
Well, there’s another key area in which this year’s Vols are struggling and it has to do with their foes’ passers. For those without eyes and ears, Tennessee’s pass rush has been defanged in 2015.
This was not supposed to be the case. Defensive end Curt Maggitt ranked third in the Southeastern Conference last year with 11 sacks. On the other end of the line, Derek Barnett was expected to improve over a freshman year in which he accounted for 10 sacks. To other returnees a few hotshot freshmen would be added: Kyle Phillips, Khalil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle among them.
Curt Maggitt was lost for most (if not all) of the season in the first half of the Vols’ second game. For those who yell “excuse!” any time someone points out a departed body, have at it. But whether you want to hear it or not, UT lost its team leader and it lost its best pass-rusher when Maggitt went down.
With no Maggitt on one side, opposing offenses can spend more time chipping and doubling Barnett. Not surprisingly, they have. And it’s worked. Barnett has a single, solitary sack this season.
In 2014, the Vols recorded 35 sacks (34 versus FBS foes). A whopping 21 of those 35 came from the Maggitt/Barnett duo. This season, John Jancek’s defense has managed just eight sacks through five games. Five of those eight have come from linebackers Jalen Reeves-Maybin — who is having a dynamite year — and true freshman Darrin Kirkland. That tells us that UT’s defensive coordinator has had to manufacture pressure with blitzes… which leaves the D vulnerable in other areas.
One of UT’s sacks this season belongs to Phillips, the freshman. But he was hurt versus Arkansas and won’t be on the field against Georgia on Saturday. The other sack belongs to defensive lineman Danny O’Brien, who was suspended for the Oklahoma and Western Carolina games. Tennessee’s top pass rushers can’t stay on the field for one reason or another.
And those big d-linemen who everyone expected to help get after the passer? Well, McKenzie took more time to get on the field than Tuttle and neither seems to have arrived on campus with many rush moves in their repertoire. Our Sports Source show features three former Vol D-linemen (Will Overstreet, Daniel Hood and Shazzon Bradley). The collective view is that the two big freshmen look more like two big nose tackles at the moment — big, somewhat plodding, and inexperienced when it comes to getting up field and into a quarterback’s grill.
Last season, Jancek and the Vols just let Maggitt and Barnett do their thing. UT recorded three or more sacks in a whopping eight contests in 2014. In 2015, they’ve registered a trifecta only once, against Florida. That’s a heckuva shift.
And here’s the problem with all that — Tennessee’s inability to put opposing QBs on the turf has cost them three ballgames.
Oh, I know… bad coaching, bad passing, a night of player errors versus Arkansas have all proven deadly. But all of those issues — every last one of them — could have been covered with, say, last year’s pass rush.
Tennessee has lost three games. First, came Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield who numerous times escaped the pocket, extended plays, and then found open receivers downfield for key conversions.
Then came Florida’s Will Grier who numerous times escaped the pocket, extended plays, and then found open receivers downfield for key conversions.
Finally, it was Brandon Allen on Saturday who numerous times — stop me if you’ve heard this — escaped the pocket, extended plays, and then found open receivers downfield for key conversions.
For those wanting to blame the secondary, you can, but most D-linemen and all former DBs will tell you that the guys in the back half of the defense can only cover for so long. No pass rush? You’re asking for trouble.
And Tennessee has been asking for trouble ever since Maggitt went down with a chipped bone in his hip. If Barnett and his defensive line mates can’t pick things up quickly, the Vols are in danger of having a losing record overall.
Don’t take my word for it. Take a look at the data from across the Southeastern Conference between 2012 and 2014 (again, post-expansion).
Here’s a look at the sack data for all those teams that recorded 2.0 or more sacks per game versus FBS opponents:
|School||Season||Sacks/Game||Overall Win %|
Now, let’s take a gander at the SEC squads who averaged less than 2.0 sacks per game versus FBS competition:
|School||Season||Sacks/Game||Overall Win %|
Let’s simplify that…
22 of 25 SEC teams between 2012 and 2014, that averaged 2.0 sacks per game or more, had winning records overall.
Only 9 of 17 SEC teams between 2012 and 2014, that averaged less than 2.0 sacks per game, had winning records overall.
Tennessee is currently sitting at 2.0, right at the cut-off point. Now, obviously other factors play into a team’s win/loss record. Things like the ability to throw the ball down the field on offense… which the Vols also can’t seem to do at the moment.
People can rant about coaching blunders, conservatism, missed field goals, and even UT’s inability to wing it when on offense. All have hurt. But each of those issues could’ve been masked had the trio of Mayfield, Grier and Allen been dumped on their rumps JUST ONCE EACH on key conversion plays.
They weren’t and you know the rest.
Quarterbacks escaping the pocket, extending plays and finding receivers down the field. It’s been the Volunteers’ biggest undoing in 2015. That was not expected with Maggitt and Barnett returning.
So the bottom line is pretty simple — Maggitt’s injury is proving to be an absolutely enormous hit on Tennessee’s season. That’s what the numbers say, anyway.
— John Pennington