Allowing nine touchdowns in 10 possessions against the South Carolina Gamecocks on the road cost Tennessee football a shot at the College Football Playoff. Part of that was lack of pressure from the defensive line.
That unit is now focused on finishing strong, as many of its members noted speaking to the press Wednesday. Edge rusher Byron Young has a year of eligibility left but is entering the NFL Draft. He is still planning to play in this game.
Young said his decision is about finishing what the team started and staying committed. An All-SEC edge rusher, he’s one of the greatest overachievers in team history, and this is his last chance to make another lasting memory.
“It’s just a hard pill to swallow knowing that this is your last game, so I didn’t want to miss out on it,” he said. “I wanted to finish it with my brothers, and this is a big week, so I want to be there for them and support them and play my best game.”
Joining Young in not returning next year is fellow Tennessee football defensive lineman LaTrell Bumphus. Unlike Young, Bumphus doesn’t have another year of eligibility left.
However, the defensive tackle has been a key part of the Vols all year and should have a shot at the pros. He said being a part of Tennessee football returning to prominence meant a lot to him and that he would encourage younger players to stick around.
“There are going to be a lot of ups and downs, but you’ve got to be able to talk to people,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to pray on things, and when things get hard, you can’t run away from it because leaving is not always the best option. You’ve got to think about what’s best for you, and if you can, sit down, and take your time. Listen to other people, and just be coachable. Everything will work out in your favor.”
Tyler Baron is one of those players who stuck it out. After Young emerged as the premiere edge rusher last year, Baron entered the transfer portal at the end of the year. However, he withdrew his name and was once again a key contributor this year.
Technically, Baron has two years of eligibility left, but he could leave early too. He said he is still weighing his options. However, sending the seniors off the right way in this game is crucial to him.
I mean the guys you spend so much time with, in my room specifically, you got LaTrell (Bumphus) and Byron (Young) – those guys are impeccable young men, and you just want them to win more so as a person than a football player. So, I think this is big in just how we feel about them. I think this is going to show how hard we play this week, just how well we want them to go out and the note we want them to finish on.”
Thanks to guys like Baron, Bumphus and Young, defensive line has been one strength of the Vols all year. A reason the defense struggled so severely at South Carolina is it’s the one game the unit was a bit off up front.
One of the key players for that unit, Omari Thomas at defensive tackle, actually confirmed he is returning to Tennessee football for 2023. He said this game is a building block for the future and that it’s important to stay locked in.
“We understand it’s a bowl, but you have to understand what the main goal is here at the end of the week,” he said. “We’re coming here to win a game, we’re coming to win a ring, and we want to be the ones out there playing in the confetti and all that.”