'Iron Man' Mahelona?

Jesse Mahelona likes to play a lot of football ... but this is ridiculous.

Tennessee defensive line coach Dan Brooks likes to use a five--man rotation at defensive tackle. Only three of this year's D-tackles -- starters Mahelona and Justin Harrell, plus reserve Tony McDaniel -- have earned the Vol aide's trust. That means the five-man rotation may give way to a three-man rotation this fall. If so, Mahelona will be on the field an awful lot.

''We've been conditioning more and more every day, getting ready for this,'' the 6-2, 300-pound Mahelona said this week. ''We know we might have to play 60 snaps a game. That's a big issue for us, so we're taking care of that by running extra out there on the field.''

Mahelona estimated that he played ''40 to 60 snaps per game'' in junior college last fall, so playing 60 snaps EVERY game will be pretty taxing ... especially since he'll be facing 320-pound SEC offensive linemen most of those weeks.

''As quick as it is up here (Div. 1), I know it's not going to be easy to play 50 to 60 snaps per game,'' Mahelona said. ''I just need to continue getting myself in shape. It's more of a mental thing.''

Brooks is hoping continued progress by sophomore LaRon Harris and freshman Ell Ash will bolster the depth at tackle. In the meantime, he's planning to use ends Karlton Neal and Turk McBride as fill-ins on the inside. Clearly, D-tackle is a key area for the 2004 Vols.

''It's a definite concern, being that we only have three to four defensive tackles who can actually play at this level,'' Mahelona conceded. ''But I believe in all of the guys around me, as well as the coaching staff and (conditioning coach) Johnny Long. I'm in the best shape of my life.''


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