Why the next Byron Young for Tennessee football won't get a participation trophy

·3 min read

The successor to Byron Young as Tennessee’s premier pass rusher hasn’t been identified.

Defensive line coach Rodney Garner said that title must be sought in spring practice but earned on Saturdays in the fall.

“It ain’t so much me (who determines Young’s replacement),” Garner said. “They’ve got to go do it. 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.”

Young is preparing for the NFL Draft after an All-SEC season in 2022. His backup, fifth-year senior Roman Harrison, returns.

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But the Vols need young edge rushers to step forward and solidify an otherwise strong defensive line. Former 4-star recruits Joshua Josephs and James Pearce are the obvious options entering their sophomore season.

Last season, Josephs was a situational pass rusher with 2½ tackles-for-loss, one sack and five quarterback hurries.

Pearce was less of a factor, but Garner likes how he’s started spring practice.

“I’ve seen some growth out of James. He’s matured,” Garner said. “He’s got to continue in the right direction. He’s got a lot of potential. But he’s got to make sure he’s investing enough to get what he wants out of this.”

Recruiting has restocked roster with pass rushers

UT has recruited edge rushers well.

Josephs and Pearce were among the highest rated signees in its 2022 class.

Freshman Caleb Herring, a 4-star signee from Riverdale, was the No. 1 rated prospect in Tennessee in the 2023 class. He also could get into the mix at edge rusher. However, UT would like returning players to fill most of the void left by Young.

Tennessee's James Pearce Jr. (27) drills during Tennessee football's third practice at Anderson Training Facility in Knoxville, Tenn. on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022.
Tennessee's James Pearce Jr. (27) drills during Tennessee football's third practice at Anderson Training Facility in Knoxville, Tenn. on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022.

“I think the Herring kid is going to be a really good player,” Garner said. “I’m really excited about him. I think he loves football. I think he’s tough. I think he’s got the length. He’s got the skillset. So I think he’s got a bright future.”

The trio looks the part. Pearce has an athletic 6-foot-5, 242-pound frame. Josephs is 6-3, 238 pounds. And the 6-5 Herring has gained 21 pounds to 226 since enrolling at UT in January. But Garner wants to see consistency from his young edge rushers in spring practice.

“We’ve definitely got the body types that we’re looking for,” Garner said. “We’ve just got to keep going. We’ve got to get the juices flowing and the confidence going. And we’ll get them the technique so they can play loose, let their hair down and let some personality come through.”

Why filling Byron Young's role matters so much

A lot is riding on UT’s ability to fill Young’s role because proven experience returns elsewhere on the defensive line.

Last season, 10 defensive linemen played at least 200 snaps, including Harrison and Josephs. Seven of them are back, but none are proven pass rushers like Young.

Tyler Baron and Dominic Bailey return at strongside defensive end. Da’Jon Terry, Omari Thomas, Bryson Eason and Elijah Simmons make up a strong rotation at defensive tackle, and Tyre West joins them after a solid freshman season.

They helped the Vols rank No. 2 in rush defense in the SEC behind Georgia and No. 2 in tackles-for-loss behind Missouri.

Arizona State transfer Omarr Norman-Lott, a 6-3, 300-pounder, is a new promising piece. But he plays on the interior of the line, where UT already returns experience.

Garner wants a rotation of 10 to 12 defensive linemen. But the unit will only be as good as its weakest link – which, for now, is at edge rusher.

Adam Sparks is the Tennessee football beat reporter. Email adam.sparks@knoxnews.com. Twitter @AdamSparks. Support strong local journalism by subscribing at knoxnews.com/subscribe.  

This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Who will be Tennessee football's next premier pass rusher?