Tennessee football OLB Darrell Taylor is on the 2019 Chuck Bednarik Award watch list. The Volunteers outside linebacker should be a favorite to win it.
When Tennessee football made the switch to a 3-4 last year under Jeremy Pruitt, nobody was set to benefit from it more than Darrell Taylor. Being able to line up at outside linebacker and focus on just rushing the quarterback was going to give him numerous chances to shine.
Taylor needed a bit of help early getting used to the system, but he eventually caught on. And dominant performances against the Georgia Bulldogs and Kentucky Wildcats showed just how great he could be.
With limited chances to shine, Taylor still enters this year as one of the top-producing SEC defenders. Ready for some interesting stats? He is tied for third among returning SEC players in tackles for a loss last year with 11, and he leads all of them in sacks, with eight.
Simply put, when it comes to important SEC statistics for a linebacker, nobody enters this year with greater expectations than Taylor. As the feature stat-machine at linebacker in the premiere defensive conference, it’s no surprise that Taylor is on the Bednarik Award watch list. In fact, given what he could be, he should be a favorite to win it.
The problem with Taylor last year was he overloaded his stats. He had three sacks against Georgia, four against Kentucky and one against the Vanderbilt Commodores. That’s where he got all of his sacks and nine of his 11 tackles for a loss. So consistency is a question.
However, Taylor wasn’t the feature edge rusher in the system last year until midway through the season. Jonathan Kongbo was the main guy before that. But with three sacks and two forced fumbles against Georgia and Kongbo’s season-ending injury against the Auburn Tigers, Taylor became the breakout star.
This year, with more familiarity in the system, you have to figure that he’ll be more consistent. Also, Tennessee football doesn’t have to face as many elite offenses this year. Well, they just have one major drop-off from the West Virginia Mountaineers to the BYU Cougars in their non-conference setting.
Meanwhile, if the Vols get better on offense, they could actually be in situations later in games this year in which teams are forced into passing downs. You have to figure that’s more likely to be the case after six of their seven losses last year were by 25 points or more.
So let’s break all this down. Taylor was playing in a new system against more elite offenses and, as a guy meant to wreak havoc in the passing game, often times was neutralized by teams running out the clock in the second half. And he still managed eight sacks and 11 tackles for a loss.
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What do you think he could do this year? Being competitive in, say, three of those games, the drop-off from West Virginia to BYU and the increased familiarity in the system should all be worth a few more sacks. Taylor, as a senior, could end up setting the Tennessee football single-season record for sacks this year. And he could wreak havoc in tackles for a loss.
By the way, Taylor forced three fumbled last year, and it was really four, but one didn’t count officially against Georgia. So if his sacks and tackles for a loss increase, couldn’t his forced fumble count do so as well?
Quite frankly, it’s a bit scary to think about how incredible Taylor’s stats could be this year. Whether or not he wins the Bednarik, or is a finalist, comes down to his supporting cast. The secondary is more settled than it was last year, which is great for Taylor if he wants time to get to the quarterback.
However, the defensive line is the opposite. And that’s bad news for Taylor. He will need the tackles to get a major push so he is free to come around the outside. Alexis Johnson, Shy Tuttle and Kyle Phillips were superb at that. Can Emmit Gooden replace that production with guys like Matthew Butler, Savion Williams and maybe Aubrey Solomon?
Whether or not they can could determine Taylor’s success entirely. But Jeremy Pruitt did lure some replacement talent up front, so there’s a chance the drop-off is minimal. If that happens, Taylor’s increase in production for Tennessee football could be maximized. And that will easily make him a favorite for the Bednarik.