Where's the beef?

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Sometimes it is the size of the dog in the fight that matters.

Case in point: An undersized defensive line caused Tennessee to rank ninth among 12 SEC teams last fall in yards allowed per rush (4.4) and rushing touchdowns (17).

Conversely, Tennessee is playing this fall with a three-man front that weighs a combined 940 pounds, averaging 314 per man. The trio nearly equals the combined weight of last year's four-man front (1,083 pounds) that averaged 271 per man.

Whereas Malik Jackson (270), Daniel Hood (293), Jacques Smith (255) and Ben Martin (265) comprised one of the SEC's smallest defensive fronts in 2011, Darrington Sentimore (283), Daniel McCullers (362) and Maurice Couch (295) make up one of the league's biggest in 2012.

Heft is nice but Sentimore, McCullers and Couch also exhibit strength and mobility. That could make the defensive front a pleasant surprise this season.

Sentimore already qualifies as a pleasant surprise on an individual basis.

"Sentimore's done a great job," first-year defensive line coach John Palermo said. "I never dreamed in a million years that he'd come back (after a mediocre spring-practice showing) with this kind of intensity and conditioning, and do the things he's doing."

Sentimore says trimming down over the summer made a world of difference in terms of his agility.

"I came in at 300 pounds," he said. "Now I'm 283, and I can move a lot better and faster. I've improved a lot at rushing the quarterback, putting pressure on him."

His fellow defensive linemen have noticed.

"He's lost a little bit of that stomach," junior end Marlon Walls said. "We used to tease him about it in the spring. He's come a long way. He's doing a great job for us right now. A guy like that you can feed off of because he's a high-motor guy."

After playing nose tackle in a 4-3 alignment last fall, Couch is starting at end in the 3-4 scheme this fall. The early returns are encouraging.

"It's definitely a big change," he said. "There's more freedom. You get to make more plays. My first day playing it was kind of awkward because I'm used to playing double-teams. There wasn't nobody crashing down on me, and it was kind of a weird thing. Now I don't get double-teamed unless I'm causing problems (for the offense)."

After some rough days initially, Couch believes he has adapted well to his new outpost.

"I've made a lot of mistakes," he said, "but Coach Sal (Sunseri) thinks I can do a great job, as far as defending the run on the outside."

Like Sentimore, Couch gained some mobility by losing some body fat the past few months.

"I've put on some muscle weight," he said. "I'm at 295. I came in at 305 (last year) but some of that weight wasn't good. Over the summer I worked my tail off to get in shape and get stronger. Conditioning was my biggest thing. With our offense playing an up-tempo (in practice), it benefits us also. On game days against teams that do that we won't be so tired."

Couch believes he has re-invented himself mentally, in addition to physically. He described himself as "hungry and humble." Those traits have impressed his position coach.

"Mo Couch has done some good things at end," Palermo said. "But he's still got to be able to play some nose tackle for us."

Couch's time at nose tackle may be somewhat limited, however, due to the presence of the massive McCullers.

"He's a quiet guy but he's coming out of his shell," Couch said. "I had the same issues when I first came in."

Because he must carry 362 pounds for four quarters, McCullers' chief concern is stamina.

"A guy his size, they're going to get tired fast," Couch said. "That's natural. We push him so he can play longer and get him strong mentally, also."

Still, Palermo's eyes light up when he discusses his gargantuan nose tackle.

"The McCullers kid has done a really good job," the Vol aide said. "He's still got a ways to go but he's making progress."

After starting eight times at nose tackle in 2011, Hood also appears capable of helping at end in 2012.

"Danny Hood has been a real pleasant surprise," Palermo said.

In addition to Hood, other key reserves along the defensive front are Walls (6-feet-2, 285), junior Corey Miller (6-feet-3, 257), senior Steven Fowlkes (6-feet-5, 254) and redshirt freshman Trevarris Saulsberry (6-feet-4, 285).

Freshman D-linemen Danny O'Brien (6-feet-2, 304), Trent Taylor (6-feet-2, 288) and Omari Phillips (6-feet-6, 325) failed to play in Game 1 but Phillips and Taylor saw some backup action in Game 2.

"They're coming," Palermo said. "Trent does a lot of good things in spots. We've got to get him doing things right the whole time. Omari has come nine million miles in a short time, and he's still got nine million more to go. I like Danny O'Brien. I think he's going to be a really good football player for us."


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