Quarterback is forever the most important job on a football team. Quarterbacks make things happen. Consider what Peyton did – most victories by a quarterback, 39.
Tennessee does not emphasize such records for left guards or even right tackles.
I have pondered the second most important job. Running backs are very valuable. I love linebackers. A spectacular receiver can be the winning edge (see video of Jalin Hyatt’s five touchdowns against Alabama).
I have settled on edge rushers as No. 2 among key jobs, a man’s man to really get after the other team’s quarterback. Getting close causes nervous indigestion. Helmet hard under the chin wins games.
Gone to the Los Angeles Rams is new millionaire and former edge rusher Byron Young, the Vols’ best at this the past two seasons.
Young led in sacks with 12.5 in his 24 games. He also led in quarterback hurries and had 83 tackles in his short career in orange. Young was first-team all-SEC. He was twice the league’s defensive lineman of the week. He finished with two sacks in the Orange Bowl – on an evening when some opted out.
All that means is there is a good job open – for veteran Roman Harrison, sophomores Joshua Josephs or James Pearce Jr., freshman Caleb Herring or somebody just in from outer space such as Emmanuel Okoye (I don’t really think he’s ready, but maybe later).
Filling this vacancy with a winner will make a difference in overall improvement of the Tennessee defense. Goodness knows it needs to improve. The secondary is praying for pressure on rival quarterbacks.
Some may not be familiar with Roman Harrison. He’s been a Vol since 2019 but I can’t recall his name ever being in a headline. Jeremy Pruitt signed him out of Bainbridge, Georgia. Somebody thought he was going to be a star. As a high school senior, he was Georgia Class 5A defensive player of the year.
He played limited minutes in 11 games as a Tennessee freshman. He almost caught a Brigham Young quarterback. He totaled seven tackles as a sophomore. Highlight of his junior campaign was a start at Missouri.
Roman had a breakout senior season, 17 solo tackles. For perspective only, the late Tom Fisher had 21 in one game, at Auburn, 1964. Keith DeLong had 19 in one game, against Alabama in 1988.
Harrison is perceived as determined, persistent, a hard worker eager to improve. This will be his chance to make a real impact. If he wins and keeps the job as edge rusher, a reward will be there at the finish.
The younger players in the competition probably have more ability. They probably don’t have more desire.
Outside linebackers coach Mike Ekeler appreciates Harrison’s love of football and his commitment to improvement.
“We felt like we had two starters last year in BY and Roman, so it’s just continuing developing. He’s up to 250 pounds. He looks like a trained killer.”
All that said, I don’t believe Tennessee coaches know who will play the Leo position. Defensive line coach Rodney Garner said that title must be sought in practice but nailed down on Saturdays in the fall.
Garner says coaches don’t really determine who plays. Players make that decision by how they play.
“We can’t just give them participation trophies. They’ve got to go out there and make plays when the game is on the line.”
Whether Harrison’s experience does or doesn’t put him ahead, Tennessee needs young rushers to develop – in a hurry. Josephs and Pearce were four-star recruits. Pearce is 6-5 and 242. Josephs is 6-3 and 238. They look exactly like players.
Garner said young Herring (another four-star) is going to be a really good player. He didn’t say Caleb would be ready by September.
Underline this truth in your scouting report: If the Vols struggle in rushing passers, questionable defensive backs will become more questionable. Those two aspects are forever linked.
Without addressing edge rushers specifically, Josh Heupel insists Tennessee defense will be better this year than last.
“We’ve added athleticism, we’ve added length. We have a lot more competition. We’ll be better.”
Isn’t that comforting? Doesn’t that add confidence for combating the October tough stretch, Texas A&M, at Alabama and at Kentucky, three Saturdays in a row?
To quote Heupel again: “Go Vols!”
Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org