Johnson helping No. 21 Tennessee answer pass rush question

Senior linebacker Deandre Johnson is helping answer the questions about who would replace Darrell Taylor for No. 21 Tennessee.

Johnson had a career-high 2 1/2 sacks, a career-high six tackles and a forced fumble helping Tennessee open the season beating South Carolina 31-27 for the Vols’ first win in Columbia since 2014. That earned the edge rusher honors Monday as the SEC defensive lineman of the week.

“Deandre’s had a really good camp,” Pruitt said Monday. “He’s one of the guys that has not missed a practice. He’s been here every day and it shows. He’s practiced well every day. He’s a guy that’s been in our system for three years. He has some maturity about him, and he’s really worked hard this offseason.”

Taylor ranked second in the Southeastern Conference last season with 8 1/2 sacks and finished his career with 19 1/2 sacks overall before Seattle made him the 59th overall pick in the NFL draft last April.

Johnson led all SEC players in sacks for the opening week, and it was the most by a Tennessee player since Taylor had four against Kentucky in November 2018. Two of his sacks came on third down. He also matched his career-high with 2 1/2 tackles for loss.

And the 6-foot-3, 255-pound linebacker also had pressure on the South Carolina quarterback on a pass behind his receiver that was intercepted by Tennessee linebacker Henry To’o To’o and returned for a touchdown.

“He’s got to do it week in and week out,” Pruitt said of Johnson. “We need him to do that.”

Tennessee finished with four sacks, good for third in the SEC and 12th nationally. The Vols, who ranked third in the SEC last season with 34 sacks, finished last season with four sacks in their comeback win over Indiana in the Gator Bowl.

The Volunteers were without defensive end Darel Middleton and defensive back Shawn Shamburger for the opener. Pruitt declined to say why the defenders weren’t available during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I just don’t think its fair to the players to put out exactly why they’re not there,” Pruitt said. “Hopefully, if everything works out, we can get these guys back very soon.”

Linebacker Kivon Bennett had a half sack, and defensive back Doneiko Slaughter also had a sack.

Now the Volunteers prepare to host Missouri (0-1) on Saturday in their home opener. They beat Missouri 24-20 on the road last season during their six-game winning streak to finish the season. The winning streak is up to seven, tied for third-longest in FBS and longest in the SEC.

Tennessee has won eight of its last nine, including five straight league in league play. But the Vols are just 1-3 against Missouri in Neyland Stadium.

Pruitt has some areas to focus on this week in practice, including trying to improve on third down after going 1-of-12 with the one conversion coming on a one-handed catch by wide receiver Brandon Johnson. Tennessee allowed South Carolina to convert 6 of 15 third downs and had six penalties for 50 yards.

But Pruitt said there aren’t any COVID-related concerns going into the home opener after missing a lot of players after students returned to campus in August. He said it’s hard to get good at football without practicing and hopes to take advantage of having almost everybody available.

“Hopefully we can continue that this week and create some momentum and chemistry,” Pruitt said. “All these phases, from the first game to the second game, is usually when you improve the most. We have lots of areas that we need to improve on.”

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Follow Teresa M. Walker at https://twitter.com/TeresaMWalker

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