KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee's defense is discovering how to produce an effective pass rush without its injured leader.
After initially struggling to adapt after Curt Maggitt's early season hip injury, Tennessee finally is starting to harass opposing quarterbacks the way it did on a regular basis last year.
Tennessee recorded five sacks in a 19-14 loss to Alabama on Oct. 24 and followed that up by bothering Patrick Towles throughout a 52-21 victory over Kentucky last week. The Volunteers (4-4, 2-3 SEC) will try to continue that pace Saturday when they host South Carolina (3-5, 1-5),
"Everyone stayed the course," linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin said. "We're working the same, having the same intensity and having the same game plan really, the same focus toward each game. It's just starting to pay off for us."
That's the type of pass rush Tennessee was expecting to produce all season.
Maggitt and Derek Barnett made Tennessee the only Football Bowl Subdivision program to return two players who posted double-digit sack totals last year. The Vols lost half that combination when Maggitt got hurt against Oklahoma in Tennessee's second game of the season.
After totaling five sacks with Maggitt in the lineup for Tennessee's first two games, the Vols had just four sacks in their first four games without him. Tennessee coach Butch Jones said Maggitt will undergo an MRI later this week that could help the Vols determine when or if the fifth-year-senior might return this season.
"Anytime you don't have Curt Maggitt on the field for you, it hurts you because he meant so much to you," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "I think our players played off his energy. They played off his leadership."
Now they've begun to adapt to his absence.
"Guys are making plays left and right out there up front for us," cornerback Cam Sutton said. "They just have fun. The d-line is probably one of the most tight-knit groups we have on this team."
After recording only one sack in Tennessee's first five games this season, Barnett has four sacks in the Vols' last three matchups. He had both of Tennessee's sacks against Kentucky.
Barnett, a sophomore, is repeating his pattern from last year. Barnett had nine of his 10 sacks last season in Tennessee's final seven games
The Vols also are getting a big boost from junior Corey Vereen, who is playing the best football of his career.
Vereen has two sacks and 4 ½ tackles for loss over his last two games. Before that stretch, he had just 2 ½ sacks and 6 ½ tackles for loss in his first 28 career games.
"You've just got to keep fighting week in and week out," Vereen said after the Kentucky game. "Whatever you're asked to do, just answer the call, play hard and play for each other."
Jones said Maggitt also is playing an indirect role in the improvement by mentoring Tennessee's remaining healthy pass rushers. Jones also said Tennessee has played better defense on first-down and second-down situations, which has resulted in more third-and-long situations that create favorable pass-rushing scenarios.
"There isn't a lot of mystery when you get in third-and-long situations," Jones said. "When you get anywhere from third-and-short to third-and-4 to 6, there's a little bit of mystery behind the play calling. When you get in third-and-long situations, you may get a draw, you may get screens or a drop-back pass. I think that's really aided them too."