KNOXVILLE — It was only a couple of weeks ago that Tennessee defensive linemen were fielding questions about how the Volunteers needed to create a better pass rush.
Through the first five games, Tennessee had only eight sacks, which ranked near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference. The lack of pressure led to a combined 601 yards passing in lopsided losses to top-10 foes Florida and Georgia as the Vols were unable to affect the pocket.
But it appears the group just needed some time together.
In the past two games, the 20-10 win over Mississippi State and last week's 35-13 loss at top-ranked Alabama, the defensive line has been able to apply enough pressure to force the opponents into some mistakes. The Bulldogs turned the ball over three times and endured seven sacks, and Alabama quarterbacks were sacked twice and Tennessee was credited with six tackles for loss.
"We're getting a little more experience," Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt said Monday. "If you look at the group, a lot of them weren't here in the spring or this is their first year to play here, like Greg Emerson this is his first year to play — he redshirted last year — Darel Middleton just got here, Aubrey Solomon's first year to play here, Kurott Garland and some these guys were redshirted, but they're going to get better the more they play, and I think it goes back to how hard they've worked at practice, it goes back to our coaches getting them to buy in and continue to work hard, and they've gotten better every week."
Junior Matthew Butler said that not just playing but playing together and developing some cohesion has been key to the improvement.
"Sometimes you don't have a grip on playing together," he said. "We've played together these past few weeks, and it's showing on tape. We just have to continue to do that — improve our game and improve the different facets of our game as that ties together our defense.
"How we played versus Mississippi State was a bit of a confidence booster, but how we played against Bama, we know who we are and we know what we are able to do. Now we just have to continue to do the same thing the rest of the season."
Butler was the only player with any real experience at Tennessee, having played 17 games in his first two seasons. Solomon, who started his career at Michigan, had 18 games of experience there. Middleton, Emerson — the only lineman to have started every game this season — Garland and juniors Ja'Quain Blakely and LaTrell Bumphus have either not played or been moved to the line from the offensive side of the ball.
But working together, they've improved. And working against Tennessee's offensive line — which has also taken huge strides — has helped.
Iron sharpens iron, right?
"Their physicality and their energy," freshman offensive lineman Wanya Morris said when asked where he's seen improvement. "They play together as one. I feel like we just work together in practice every day to get each other better. That's our goal. The one-on-one periods, the team runs — they know it's a run so it's only going to make you better. They have to get past you, you have to get past them, so I feel it only makes us better as a team."
This week's challenge, a home game against South Carolina, will provide another opportunity for a group that was expected to get better as the season went along to do just that. Emerson has become a disrupter, tied with outside linebacker Darrell Taylor for the team lead with four tackles for loss. He had his second sack of the season against the Crimson Tide. Butler and Middleton were credited with tackles for loss.
And they are hungry for more.
"As a defensive line, we've definitely been able to make some plays," Butler said Tuesday. "I'd be remiss if I didn't speak on the last game. I didn't play up to the standard I need to play, and that's not going to happen again. That gives me a little extra bit of motivation and the guys some extra motivation to step it up a notch this game.
"If the game falls in our hands, we're going to win it. That's the goal."
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.