Backup 'backers underused?

You can make a pretty good case that Tennessee's second-team linebackers should be playing almost as much as the first-teamers.

Starting 'backers Robert Peace (shoulder), Kevin Simon (broken ankle) and Kevin Burnett (torn ACL) are all coming off injuries that caused them to miss spring practice. In addition, Burnett was severely limited in preseason drills. As a result, the starters have shown signs of rust and have not played up to their preseason all-star projections.

''We had three starting linebackers that were coming back from injuries,'' coordinator John Chavis said this week. ''You wish you could've gotten them more work in the preseason -- I think we would've been a little bit better -- but you couldn't because of the injuries. They were limited. One of them in particular (Burnett) had 12 live snaps before our first ballgame.

''You just don't go out and play the game that you did (before the injuries).... We had to live with what we had to live with.''

Simon had a spectacular game at Florida (16 tackles) and very good games vs. Marshall and Duke (12 stops each). He leads UT in tackles (94) and sacks (4.5) but he's made just 12 stops combined the past two weeks. In addition, he has registered just eight big plays, ranking him sixth on the team.

Burnett had an 11-tackle effort against Duke but made just nine stops the past two weeks combined. He ranks fourth on the team in big plays with 10.5 and recently rated his performance this fall ''a 1 or 2'' on a 10-point scale.

Of the starting 'backers, Peace has played the steadiest -- producing quality games vs. Alabama (16 stops), South Carolina (15), Duke and Marshall (10 each). He ranks second in total tackles (89) and leads the Vols in big plays (14.5).

While the first-teamers have been rounding into shape, Tennessee's second-team 'backers have shown flashes of brilliance. Jason Mitchell has made 26 tackles -- two of them resulting in lost yardage, including a sack. He also forced a fumble. Marvin Mitchell has 19 stops -- including 1.5 tackles for loss -- an interception, a pass breakup and a blocked punt. Omar Gaither has 22 tackles, three of them for minus yardage.

Considering the injuries Tennessee had to overcome at linebacker and the inexperience it had to overcome at defensive tackle, the defense has played reasonably well through the first 10 games.

''We had some questions at the beginning of the season, and we've made progress in those areas,'' Chavis said. ''We were really concerned about our play at defensive tackle, but those guys have come on and are playing good quality football now.''

Peace is in his final year of eligibility -- as are end Constantin Ritzmann and defensive backs Gibril Wilson, Rashad Baker and Jabari Greer. Tennessee's other six defensive starters will be back next year, along with almost all of the top reserves. Thus, the outlook for 2004 is bright.

''I think this is a defense that somewhere down the road, if we keep everybody healthy, can be really good,'' Chavis said. ''We still need some help in the defensive line but, as far as our skill people and linebackers and our defensive ends, they've played well all year.''

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