D-Line is Key To UT's Success

Any casual fan of football can appreciate the importance of the defensive line to a team's success but few understand that the quality of a D-line is determined by its depth and diversity as much as it is by talent and tenacity.

In the never-ending struggle to gain superiority in the trenches, the offensive line enjoys an intrinsic advantage over its defensive counterpart because it takes more energy to play on the D-line than it does ot play on the O-line. This inequity exists because the defense has to gain penetration to be effective, whereas the offensive front often only needs a stalemate to gain control. The defensive lineman needs to find the ball, defeat the blocker and chase the ball, whereas the offensive lineman only needs to turn, shield or get in the way to keep his opponent at bay.

The offense can determine the pace a game is played and the place on the field it will attack. A good quarterback can sell a play fake to further frustrate a defensive lineman or force the D front to chase reverses and cover the entire field. Eventually even an outstanding, well conditioned defensive front can get worn down late in a game if not provided with adequate relief.

On the other hand, an offensive lineman can seemingly get stronger when the line is coming off the ball together and the offense is firing on all cylinders. An offense in rhythm enjoys the added respite that is inherent in the repetition that distinguishes a long drive while the defense must deal with frustration on top of fatigue. As a defense falters, its energy and confidence are drain away and fundamentals and technique become a casualties. It's the type of breakdown that Tennessee suffered last season against South Carolina, Auburn and Georgia when a combination of inexperience and lack of depth resulting from replacing the entire starting defensive line two years in a row reached its nadir.

During that stretch of three games Tennessee gave up 667 yards rushing in 146 carries losing to Georgia and Auburn and going into overtime at home to beat South Carolina. Gamecocks freshman Demetrius Summers piled up 158 yards in 27 carries as S.C. put together scoring drives of 72 yards in 10 plays, 89 yards in 11 plays and 79 yards in 10 plays. Auburn's Carnell "Cadillac" Williams gained 185 yards in 36 carries as the Tigers rushed for 264 yards and put together scoring drives of 80 yards in 10 plays, 85 yards in seven plays, 66 yards in 12 plays and 62 yards in eight plays. Auburn also enjoyed a 36:04 to 23:56 advantage in time of possession. Georgia held a commanding 36:19 to 23:41 advantage in ball control while gaining 186 yards in 45 carries and scoring on drives of 74 yards in 12 plays and 83 yards in 14 carries.

During that midseason defensive slump, three SEC opponents averaged 4.6 yards per carry which left an exhausted Tennessee front to face a lot of third-and-short situations. Eventually the Vols were able to shuffle enough personnel around and pick up enough experience to close the flood gates, but they paid a high price by losing two games that cost them an SEC or national title shot.

That shouldn't be a problem this fall as the Vols return three starters in the D-line and fortify their front with reserves that talented if untested. In fact Tennessee has eight players that could figure into the tackle rotation including JC transfer Jesse Mahelona, junior Greg Jones, sophomores Justin Harrell, Anthony McDaniel, LaRon Harris and Matt McGlothlin, all whom received playing time last season. The arrival of high school All-American Demonte Bolden gives UT a potential impact player that will bolster the rush defense.

At defensive end the Vols return three of their top four players from last year in Parys Haralson, Karlton Neal and Jason Hall. They will be backed up by sophomore Turk McBride (voted the team's most improved defensive player this spring) and redshirt freshman Jared Hostetter, another high energy player with a load of potential. Also arriving on the scene is true freshman Xavier Mitchell who is regarded as an outstanding pass rushing prospect.

Obviously with 13 players vying for playing time at four positions there some from that group will be mostly watching from the sidelines. However the competition should amp up the intensity level and push the cream to the crop which wasn't the case in 2002 and 2003.

Moreover, the Vols will have more diversity in the ranks of its defensive front which will allow defensive coordinator John Chavis to mix and match personnel packages according to down and distance. Last year defensive end starter Constantin Ritzmann was a liability against the rush but often UT was forced to leave him in the game on a third down and three or four yards to go because he was one of their better pass rushers. This year Tennessee will be able to play their strongest run stoppers at defensive end until they face a passing situation in which they can rotate fresh troops to apply pressure. They should also be able move a defensive end to a tackle spot in third and long situations which is a tactic Chavis has used with great effect when he's had the depth to do so.

The bottom line for the defensive line is shutting down the run and applying pressure without resorting to the blitz. The object is to use the blitz when you want to in order to maintain an element of surprise and to keep the offense off balance. If you can't pressure the passer with your four down lineman, the offense can prepare for the blitz in passing situations and pick the defense apart.

Having depth and diversity to go with talent in the defensive line is the key to any effective defense and an effective defense is critical to success of any team at any level of football.

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