Persistent Pearce averaging a sack a game for the Vols

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee sophomore edge rusher James Pearce celebrates a stop during last Saturday night's 41-20 win over South Carolina.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee sophomore edge rusher James Pearce celebrates a stop during last Saturday night's 41-20 win over South Carolina.

Several minutes after Tennessee's 41-20 whipping of South Carolina was complete last Saturday night, Volunteers sophomore edge rusher James Pearce Jr. was asked if he had made Gamecocks quarterback Spencer Rattler uncomfortable.

"I don't know," Pearce replied. "That's a him thing. I just know we had to get after him."

Getting after Rattler was a common occurrence for the 6-foot-5, 242-pounder from Charlotte, who collected three tackles that included two sacks for minus-14 yards. Pearce also provided the biggest quarterback pressure of the night, causing Rattler to sail a throw in the final minute of the first half that landed in the arms of Vols cornerback Kamal Hadden, who raced untouched 28 yards to extend Tennessee's lead to 24-10.

The Vols would never relinquish that double-digit advantage, and Pearce was named as the Southeastern Conference's defensive lineman of the week.

"We played together," Pearce said. "We played relentless, and we knew we had to come out there and dominate."

Replacing the edge-rushing presence of Byron Young, who's having success as a Los Angeles Rams rookie, was a big question mark for this season's Vols, but Pearce revealed himself as a potential answer in the 49-13 opening rout of Virginia in Nashville by recording a pair of third-down sacks. He followed that up with another sack in the home opener against Austin Peay and then added two tackles for loss in the 29-16 setback at Florida.

His teammates have not been surprised by this surge that he hopes to extend when the Vols resume play next Saturday at home against Texas A&M.

"I've known he could do this since he got here," sophomore linebacker Elijah Herring said. "He came in with the mindset of, 'I'm that guy,' and he just kept it consistent each and every day."

Pearce has five sacks in five games to rank tied for fifth nationally and just behind Alabama linebacker Dallas Turner (5.5) among SEC players. In one of the more unique statistics for the Vols through their 4-1 start, Pearce has 10 total tackles, with seven resulting in lost-yardage stops.

"It all starts from my get off," he said. "Once I get going, they have no choice but to come out there or sit down inside. They've got to make a choice, and I've just got to read and react off of it."

As a team, Tennessee ranks second nationally with 22 sacks and fifth with 47 tackles for loss.

Heupel in top-10

Tennessee's Josh Heupel was among the top-10 highest paid football coaches at the start of the 2023 season, according to salaries compiled by USA Today and released Tuesday.

Heupel tied for ninth with Lane Kiffin of Ole Miss, with each making $9 million.

Alabama's Nick Saban topped the list at $11.41 million, and he was followed by Clemson's Dabo Swinney ($10.88 million), Georgia's Kirby Smart ($10.71 million), Ohio State's Ryan Day ($10.27 million), Michigan State's Mel Tucker ($10.02 million), LSU's Brian Kelly ($9.98 million), Texas A&M's Jimbo Fisher ($9.15 million) and Kentucky's Mark Stoops ($9.01 million).

Tucker was fired last Wednesday after Michigan State determined that he failed to provide legitimate reasons as to why he should not be terminated for cause after self-describing consensual phone sex with a well-known rape survivor and activist.

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