Tennessee pass rush relying heavily on Darrell Taylor
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee outside linebacker Darrell Taylor is coming off a breakthrough season but believes he's capable of doing even better.
Taylor recorded eight sacks last season, the most of any Southeastern Conference player who returns this year. Taylor says he can improve upon those numbers if he gains the consistency that has been missing from his game up to his point.
"The goal is definitely to exceed that," Taylor said.
Taylor has shown he can deliver against quality opponents. Seven of his eight sacks last year came against Georgia and Kentucky , which both finished the season ranked 12th or higher.
The problem is that Taylor recorded a total of one sack in Tennessee's other 10 games. Taylor's coaches have preached the importance of producing a quality pass rush each week.
"He has to bring it," co-defensive coordinator and outside linebackers coach Chris Rumph said. "He's the face of the program, the defense right now. We're expecting a lot of things out of him."
Taylor's inconsistency last year may explain his relative lack of preseason acclaim.
When the SEC media voted on a preseason all-conference team last month, they didn't include Taylor among the nine linebackers to earn first-team, second-team or even third-team honors.
"That's not something I really care about," Taylor said. "I'm only focused on my team and us getting better each and every day."
Perhaps Taylor was ignored because he plays for a team coming off two straight last-place finishes in the SEC Eastern Division.
The only Tennessee player to earn preseason all-SEC honors from the media was Marquez Callaway as a second-team return specialist. SEC coaches put together their own preseason all-conference team and put Taylor and Tennessee defensive back Nigel Warrior on the third team while also including Callaway as a second-team returner.
That lack of preseason recognition also serves as one more reminder that Taylor must become more reliable if he's to become recognized as one of the nation's top pass rushers.
Tennessee needs a big season from him because its defense doesn't have many other proven playmakers beyond Taylor and linebacker Daniel Bituli, who has led the Vols in tackles each of the last two seasons.
The Vols don't have any returning starters on the defensive line . Taylor is the only current Tennessee player who recorded more than two sacks last year, which means the fifth-year senior must take more of a leadership role.
"I'm just trying to tell the younger guys college football doesn't last forever, so just make sure you make the most of it while you're here," Taylor said.
Junior defensive end and converted tight end LaTrell Bumphus says the rest of the defense has learned from the drive that Taylor shows on the practice field.
"He's got a really good motor on him, and that kind of feeds off on the whole team, and we kind of get juiced up," Bumphus said.
Tennessee's lack of pass-rushing depth means Taylor could face plenty of double-teaming from opposing offenses this fall.
Coaches believe he's ready for the challenge.
"I think Darrell's a guy that has really good pass-rush ability," head coach Jeremy Pruitt said. "He's worked hard since we've been here to learn what to do and how we want it done. I think it showed last year. He's got ability to be a playmaker on defense. He's searching for consistency - and with experience and knowledge and understanding the expectations, we'll see that."
Taylor already has come a long way since arriving at Tennessee with the frame of someone who had played wide receiver as well as defense at Hopewell (Virginia) High School.
The lineman said he weighed about 215 when he first enrolled at Tennessee. Taylor now is listed at 6-foot-4 and 255 pounds.
Taylor believes the extra time he's spent in the weight room and film room will help enable him to avoid those unproductive Saturdays he had too often last season.
"I definitely see this as a year for being more consistent and making more plays than I ever have in my life," Taylor said.
Follow Steve Megargee at https://twitter.com/stevemegargee
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/tag/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25