Orange defense is green

It's a simple fact that the more you play, the better you get. Unfortunately, that could be a problem for Tennessee's defense in Saturday's football opener vs. Fresno State.

''We're a young team defensively, when you look at the number of starters we're bringing back,'' Vol defensive coordinator John Chavis said this week. ''And the total number of starts is probably the least we've ever had here.''

He may be right. The Vols' starting front four has just nine combined starts. End Karlton Neal has the most starts (4), followed by end Constantin Ritzmann (3) and tackle Mondre Dickerson (2). The Vols will be even greener if Parys Haralson (0 career starts) edges ahead of Neal by gametime. Meanwhile, both of the guys vying for the tackle job opposite Dickerson -- sophomore Greg Jones and walk-on freshman Matt McGlothlin -- are yet to make their first college start.

Though the Vols are gifted at linebacker, their experience level falls far short of their talent level. The projected starters -- Robert Peace (5), Kevin Burnett (3) and Kevin Simon (3) -- have a combined total of just 11 college starts. The reserve 'backers have a total of four starts among them, all by Jason Mitchell.

On a positive note, Tennessee's defense is quite experienced in perhaps the most crucial area -- the secondary. Free safety Rashad Baker has 31 career starts to his credit and cornerback Jabari Greer has 21. Strong safety Gibril Wilson boasts seven starts. But the other cornerback, sophomore Jason Allen, has hardly played in a college game, let alone started one. Moreover, neither of the reserve cornerbacks -- Brandon Johnson, Antwan Stewart -- has started a college game.

Chavis would love to field an experienced lineup but he's not inclined to complain because his troops are a bit greener than usual.

''We've tried to get 'em ready,'' he said. ''We've worked hard to get where we need to be. We're probably three or four days from being where we need to be, then we're going to tee it up, kick it off, play football and have some fun.''

Tennessee's greatest area of inexperience is at defensive tackle. Dickerson has two career starts but they came last year as an end. None of the other tackle prospects has ever started a college game at ANY position.

''Obviously, we're young there,'' Chavis said. ''We've got a lot of inexperience. We've got guys who don't know what it takes to win on this level. But they're making progress, and that's the thing that's encouraging.''

Two years ago, Tennessee's tackle positions were manned by first-round NFL draft picks John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth. There is no one of that ilk among this year's tackles, although Dickerson can be a dominant player at the position.

''He can,'' Chavis said. ''We've got to expect him to be. We've pushed him hard to get there, and he's a lot closer than he was in spring practice or early fall.''

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