Sometimes a college football player's improvement can be due to the simplest of factors, and is anything more basic than experience and health?
Tennessee senior defensive end Tyler Baron has played in all 37 games with the Volunteers since his freshman season but has been limited or even sidelined on multiple occasions. The 6-foot-5, 260-pounder from Knoxville got a fresh start to the 2023 season last Saturday in Nashville and made the most of it, racking up 2.5 tackles for loss in the 49-13 victory over Virginia.
"I just think it's the natural growth that comes with getting older," Baron said this week in a news conference. "I've got better technique. I'm playing hard and I'm healthy, and that's the biggest thing.
"My body is in a really good place, so I'm just looking to maintain it."
Baron's lost-yardage stops included a pair of sacks, nearly eclipsing his sacks total from last year (2.5). His performance against the Cavaliers earned him the season's inaugural Southeastern Conference defensive lineman of the week honor.
Tennessee third-year defensive coordinator Tim Banks, who described Baron in preseason camp as having been "banged-up a ton" during his time in Knoxville, was pleased with Baron's 2023 debut.
"It's just him being healthy," Banks said. "Tyler is healthy. He's always had the potential to be one of the elite players in this conference, and having the chance to keep him healthy is job No. 1 for us and for him as well.
"As long as he stays healthy and stays with the mindset and intent that he has, we expect him to have a tremendous season for us."
The four-star signee and borderline top-100 national prospect in the 2020 recruiting cycle played 250 snaps in his freshman season that was altered by the coronavirus, compiling 21 tackles, three tackles for loss and a sack. He started five of 13 games as a sophomore in 2021, totaling 30 tackles, seven tackles for loss and four sacks in what would be his most productive year.
Baron started the first three games last season and wound up with 22 tackles, including 6.5 for loss.
Against Virginia, the Vols had their most success up front defensively with the "rabbit package" containing Baron, Omarr Norman-Lott and James Pearce Jr. A rabbit package typically replaces the larger defensive linemen with those having lighter frames who can get to the quarterback quicker.
"There is just a lot of athleticism on the field, honestly, and a lot of speed," Baron said, "but I also think we can hold up against the run. It's just a different look that our coaches like, and we were successful with it."
Pili to miss games
Sixth-year senior linebacker and Brigham Young transfer Keenan Pili sustained an upper-body injury against Virginia that could sideline him for the remainder of the month. Pili had four tackles against the Cavaliers and received a game ball.
"We weren't sure earlier in the week about the severity of the injury," Heupel said Wednesday on the SEC teleconference. "He will not be available this week. He'll miss a couple of weeks here. I don't believe it's season-ending at this point.
"We'll see how he continues to heal up in the coming days and weeks."
By missing a couple of weeks, Pili will not play this Saturday against Austin Peay and next Saturday at Florida.
Tennessee left tackle John Campbell Jr., the sixth-year senior transfer from the University of Miami, said during preseason camp that one of the reasons he picked the Vols is because he would be noticed more.
After expressing his love for Waffle House and producing a viral blocking video against Virginia, it has been mission accomplished way sooner than he expected.
"I just feel like it's a bigger stage," Campbell said this week. "I'm doing more interviews. It's more of a production, and it's just a bigger stage. It's crazy with all of the fans, especially all of the die-hard fans.
"Everywhere I walk around, people say they love Tennessee. If you've got a Tennessee shirt on, somebody is going to come up to you and talk to you and love on you."
Who is this guy?
For those who needed to check their rosters late in the first half of last Saturday's triumph, the defensive back wearing No. 35 for the Vols is Will Brooks, a 6-1, 200-pound redshirt junior from the Birmingham suburb of Vestavia Hills.
Brooks does not have a bio in the Tennessee media guide but did record five tackles last season and added another against the Cavaliers.
"Will has been very consistent for us since I've been here, quite honestly," Banks said this week. "He's played both safety positions. He's played the 'star' position for us. He's just a guy we trust. We know exactly what we're going to get when we put him in a game.
"We definitely want guys who can make plays, but before you make a play, you've got to make sure you're not giving up plays, and that's definitely what he brings. That's one of his strengths."
Contact David Paschall at [email protected].