The specter of injury permeates the program and not all the wounds are fresh. Linebacker Kevin Burnett hasn't fully recovered from a knee injury that knocked him out of action in the opening moments of season past. Because he was being counted on as UT's key defensive player — a Leonard Little-like rush linebacker who could pressure the passer and create havoc with his impact skills — and the fact he was lost in the opening series before a packed house and national TV audience, he came to symbolize a season of great expectations ripped asunder by injury's wicked winds.
Burnett has been limited in practice and hasn't got to test the knee in full speed, full contact competition. Despite the fact Burnett, a high school safety, has only started three games in three years at UT, he's again being counted on as a difference maker from which many of John Chavis' tactics will be designed and attack be deployed.
California teammate Kevin Simon is the man most physically qualified to assume some of Burnett's role, but he's also coming back from a season-ending injury while trying to knock off three years of rust. Rated the nation's No. 2 overall prospect in 2001, Simon is trying to exorcise injury demons that have tormented him since he first torn knee ligaments in the National High School All Star Game during his senior year at mighty De La Salle.
The need for linebackers to apply pressure across the front is largely due to the lack of development and dependability of Tennessee's defensive tackles to this point. It also remains to be seen if the defensive ends will be effective pass rushers. The key player there is Constantine Ritzmann, a fifth-year senior who went down with a season-ending knee injury a few days before the 2002 campaign kicked off. Ritzmann is still overcoming the effects of surgery. Like Burnett and Simon, he has yet to fulfill the promise he brought to the Hill, but he's still being counted on to fill a critical role.
The ghost of season future is the green goblin of inexperience that infests Tennessee's defensive interior. None of the Vols defensive tackles has started a single game at that position in a Division I contest. Last year when UT had to replace it's entire defensive front there were several players with significant game experience like Rashad Moore, Demetrin Veal and Aubrayo Franklin ready to step into the breach created by the loss of John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth. All five of those D-linemen were taken in the NFL Draft.
There has been a similar succession of solid trench men though out the Phillip Fulmer era, players like Shane Bonham, Shane Burton, Leland Taylor, Bill Duff, Ron Green, Billy Ratliff, Jeff Coleman and Darwin Walker performed yeomen duty in rotations that evolved in seamless fashion, assuring the Vols would have battle-tested veterans ready to step up to the plate and perform from game one each season.
This year there is no such succession. Mondre Dickerson has played defensive end through six years of high school and junior college football. In the middle of last season he was moved inside to fortify the tackle position, but he never distinguished himself as a tackle and remains a question mark. Dickerson is blessed with size, strength and speed however he has yet to manifest the requisite intensity needed to become a force up front.
Sophomore Greg Jones came to Tennessee as a high school linebacker before he was switched to defensive tackle last season. He played primarily in mop up duty as true freshman and demonstrated good potential. It remains to be seen how he'll perform when asked to produce on an every down basis with contests in the balance.
In addition to inexperience, Dickerson and Jones at 6-5 and 6-6, respectively, share another common trait as uncommonly tall tackles. Maintaining leverage inside is essential to success and it takes exceptional technique for tall tackles to achieve that objective. The NFL optimum standard for DTs is 6-3 or 6-4 while 6-1 is the minimum height standard.
It's true UT has had notable exceptions in defensive tackles Henderson, 6-6, and Haynesworth, 6-5, but both players were exceptional talents, not to mention first round draft picks, and it still took time for each to develop the technique needed to excel inside. Henderson didn't become a dominating presence up front until his third season at Tennessee. Haynesworth also had his best season in year three which was also his first as a starter.
David Ligon, a 6-5 redshirt freshman, and Anthony McDaniel, a 6-7 true freshman, are another tandem of tall candidates playing inside for the first time in their careers. Ligon appears to be a work in progress. McDaniel is practicing while awaiting an academic appeal to become eligible. McDaniel is an imposing physical presence with outstanding upside, however it's tough to count on true freshmen to contribute at defensive anchors.
Junior college transfer Zarnell Fitch has ideal size at 6-3, 290, but it typically takes junior college lineman time to adjust to the Division I game. Freshman walk-on Matt McGlothlin, 6-0, 290, has exhibited high energy and intensity but still hasn't been tested in battle. Sophomore J.T. Mapu, 6-3, 270, is another lifetime defensive end seeing his first action at DT this season.
Add up all the elements of Tennessee's defensive tackle corps and you have one true freshman, three redshirt freshmen, two true sophomores and two junior college transfers. That's an abundance of youth at a position normally dominated by well seasoned upper classmen.
Even a tackle with perfect size and outstanding ability, such as Harrell at 6-4, 305, has to adjust to the daunting demands of playing gridiron's ground zero where the first priority is to hold your ground and occupy blockers. Getting push and pressure up the middle, ala Henderson and Haynesworth, is a bonus few teams can ever claim.
There is a bright side to Tennessee's poor preseason showing in the defensive interior, as it clearly shows the offensive middle of UT's line has made great progress from last year. Ultimately, that is the most important and positive development to this point and may portend the return of a powerful running game for the Vols.
The physical demands of playing defensive tackle dictate the development of depth and a five-player rotation. Since finding five defensive tackles from the Vols current crop of candidates capable of holding their own against a schedule of football heavyweights may be too much to expect, UT may opt to develop a pair of nose tackles and deploy in the 3-4. This would get four linebackers on the field, allowing the defense to take advantage of its greatest strength.
The problem is that it's even more difficult to play nose tackle than it is to play in an even front. And again the Vols don't have anyone with significant experience in such a role. That move would also limit playing time for the tackles which is crucial for their long-term development. A comprise would be to use both looks, the 4-3 and 3-4, until personnel emerges that makes one scheme preferable.
The bottom line on the defensive line: Tennessee has talent and depth up front which will fare better against lesser offensive lines and should eventually form a highly capable unit.
However, for the time being, there is no substitute for experience and no defense against injury.