Simon and Peace were All-American linebackers in high school, while Burnett was a heralded safety who has grown into a linebacker at the college level. If the three of them live up to their press clippings, they could give Tennessee the finest linebacking corps in the Southeastern Conference, especially if talented backups such as Marvin Mitchell, Jason Mitchell, Jon Poe, Omar Gaither continue to progress. The 'backer corps also could get some help from freshmen Daniel Brooks and Jarod Hostetter.
''We have the potential to be great but we have to prove it,'' Peace said. ''That (proof) is going to come the first game against Fresno and come the last game. After the season we'll find out how really good we are. We just have to work on a few little things and perform on Saturdays.''
Burnett tore an ACL in Game 1 last fall. Simon broke an ankle in Game 4. Peace, slowed by shoulder problems all year, went out with a fractured an ankle in Game 9. All appear to be fully recovered as the 2003 season approaches.
''Everybody's moving good,'' Peace said. ''My shoulder, for the first time in two years, isn't bothering me at all. Everybody seems to be back healthy.''
The linebackers had better be healthy because they face a huge challenge. With UT replacing all four starters last year's defensive line and two starting cornerbacks (Julian Battle, Willie Miles), the linebackers project to be the strength of this year's defense.
''We're real excited about people saying we're the strength of the defense,'' Peace said. ''It puts a lot of pressure on your shoulders but we want to lead this defense to be the best defense in the nation. That's our goal.''
Although injuries nearly wiped out Tennessee's linebacking corps last season, Peace figures the Vols gained from that adversity.
''The big thing was attitude,'' he said. ''Everybody went out every day -- didn't make excuses -- just went and played. I think a lot of that has to do with your coach (coordinator John Chavis). He's a fierce competitor, and I think it reflects on your players. No matter who was out there, you went out there to perform.''