One of the most important things for a modern defense to be able to do is generate pressure on the opposing quarterback. Whether by the scheme, blitzing, creating pressure through great coverage, or one player simply being difficult to account for, teams have to find ways to get after opposing quarterbacks. Defensive scheme weighs heavily in how teams plan to get to opposing signal-callers, and where they expect that pressure to come from. In Tennessee's base 3-4 alignment, the primary pass rush responsibilities typically fall to the linebackers, and then the outside linebackers specifically. Finding a player with the size and speed to rush the passer from that edge spot is not easy, especially when the Vols will ask that player to drop into coverage at times as well. While it is possible to scheme pressures, stunts, and blitzes to rattling an opposing passer, that is much more easily done if the defense has an edge rusher that the offense is forced to plan for, and that may still take over a game. Jeremy Pruitt has been trying to bring that type of player in at Tennessee since he arrived in Knoxville, and he may have finally managed it. The Vols have landed the commitment of one of their long-time and highest priority targets in the 2021 class, five-star Handley High School (Roanoke, AL) defensive end, Dylan Brooks.
Brooks is 6’5” and 230 pounds, playing with his hand in the dirt as a defensive end and as a stand up outside linebacker at Handley in their base 4-3 defense. At Tennessee, Brooks will likely also be playing with his hand in the dirt and standing up, though the percentages will likely be inverted from his time in high school. Brooks will likely only put his hand in the dirt as a defensive end when the Vols shift into their subpackage. Even then, Tennessee doesn't always shift out of their three-man front. When they do go into a four-man front, Brooks will likely be the fourth man, dropping down to an end spot to serve as a pass rusher. In most other instances, expect Brooks to come off the edge of the defense as a standup linebacker much like Darrell Taylor did during his career with the Vols. Brooks is much more than a pass rusher, but it is in that role that he thrives. Brooks is an all-around excellent athlete and defender, but it is as a pass rusher that he sets himself apart, to a truly elite level.
There are many contributing factors to making Dylan Brooks such an exceptional defender, but his absolute explosion off the line has to be at the top of the list. In fact, explosion may not do justice to what Brooks does when the ball is snapped. He comes up out of his stance as if he was shot out of a cannon, seemingly at full speed before he is ever up out of his stance, already either well into the offensive tackle’s body or attacking their outside shoulder as he turns the corner to the quarterback. Brooks has the strength to bull rush even much bigger offensive tackles because of his incredible first step and how low he plays. He can be below an offensive tackle's center of gravity, hands already inside his body, off his initial step. When Brooks is that low and able to engage a tackle, no matter how good the tackle is, it the exact same process for Brooks as driving through a blocking sled. Brooks may not make the tackle, as he is likely to remain engaged with the tackle all the way to the ground, but by driving a tackle into the quarterback or running back, he has killed the play. That kind of strength on the bull rush forces tackles to play honest, respecting the strength of Brooks, they cannot set too wide to overcompensate for his speed, and they would be off balanced easily by that bull rush. It is when Brooks attacks the outside shoulder of a tackle that his incredible speed comes to bear. Brooks is simply faster than a 230-pound athlete has any right to be. When paired with his acceleration, the combination makes for a devastating pass rusher. Many tackles simply can't set deep enough, fast enough, to reach Brooks when he comes on a speed rush. When Brooks knows the offense is throwing the ball, an offense is left with three options. You can double team him, leave your tackle on an island and give up a sack, or hope that your tackle is able to hold him without drawing a flag. If Brooks gets by the outside shoulder of his offensive tackle, the play is over. He still has to actually go through the motions to finish the play, but once he gets the outside shoulder, with his speed, the play is dead. Brooks flashes his speed to devour the ground between himself and the quarterback, arriving with a bang and an inevitable finality. Brooks has the hand techniques and usage that separate excellent pass rushers from good ones, but he does have room to grow in terms of the moves he goes to and the techniques he employs with his hands. Still, it is that breathtaking first step, stunning top-end speed, and the ability to play so low with a devastating bull rush that makes Brooks almost unblockable one-on-one in passing situations.
When the offense calls a run, the task frankly doesn’t get much easier for the tackles assigned to account for Brooks. In the run game, tackles will often have 70 to 80 pounds over Brooks, and that ability to punish him by throwing bigger, stronger bodies at him should even the playing field for the offense. Except, Brooks brings the strength of a much larger player to the field. On film he shows an ability to stone much larger tackles when he reads run. Even large linemen with a head of steam hit Brooks on film and just stop. Brooks plays low and quick. He engages larger players with excellent pad level, uses his strength to steer them where he wants according to what he sees, then uses his speed to disengage and explode into the ball carrier. Brooks can also bypass needing to engage the tackle all together by exploding out of his stance and trying to shoot a gap. If Brooks is able to get across an offer since tackle's face and attack the gap off his inside shoulder, something his speed allows him to do with regularity, there is little hope for that tackle to save the play. Once in the offensive backfield, Brooks closes on the ball carrier like a bullet, and ends the play with his sure tackling on arrival. When defending the run as a standup linebacker, Brooks reads his keys well, flows to the ball, fights through blockers, and attacks the ball carrier at his first opportunity. Brooks even shows himself to be an asset in coverage when playing as a linebacker. He has the speed and change of direction to run with tight ends and running backs. Brooks, an excellent tight end for Handley in his own right, understands the downfield passing game as a tight end, and he applies that knowledge to disrupting it as a linebacker.
The Vols had made Brooks a top priority for quite some time. He has been a frequent visitor to Tennessee's campus, and the Tennessee coaching staff has done a good job of staying in his ear from early on in the process about how they could use him, what he could do at Tennessee, and what the Vols had to offer. As a result, the Vols have not only landed themselves a five-star pass rusher, they have gone into the state of Alabama and gotten a player, head-to-head, that both Alabama and Auburn, among many, many others, wanted badly. It is a long way to Signing Day, but if the Vols can make this stick, it will be one of the biggest recruiting victories for Jeremy Pruitt since he arrived in Knoxville. The thought of Brooks playing at the outside linebacker spot while a 300-pound defensive end threatens an offensive tackle's inside shoulder as well will excite the entire Tennessee defensive staff, as they have added a player capable of changing the complexion of their defense by simply lining up. The Vols have landed the elite pass rusher they have sought since Pruitt's arrival in Knoxville, now there is the wait to see what the Tennessee coaches can do with him