Mahelona's the man

Tennessee's official roster lists Jesse Mahelona at 6-feet-2, which might be a bit generous. While fans might question the junior defensive tackle's height, they can't question his talent or his toughness.

The 300-pound junior college transfer exhibited plenty of both in last Saturday's 17-13 win over Alabama. Playing with a strained knee that kept him from taking a single snap in practice all week, Mahelona wore a cumbesome brace against the Tide. With his lateral movement somewhat limited, he recorded just three stops that afternoon, but he made them count. Two of the tackles were for minus yardage, including a 15-yard fourth-quarter sack that forced Bama to settle for a field goal when the Tide appeared to be driving for the tying touchdown.

Vol defensive coordinator John Chavis -- a man not known for giving lavish praise -- recently said that Mahelona is playing as well as any defensive tackle in college football. He feels the sensational Samoan deserves plenty of credit for his play thus far.

''He's played really well for us,'' Chavis said. ''He's gotten better and better each week. We didn't think he'd play any last week but Jesse's a tough guy. We appreciate his mental toughness, as well as his physical toughness.''

Mahelona isn't as physically imposing as former Vol tackles such as John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth -- both in the 6-6, 320-pound range -- but he may be even harder to block because of his low center of gravity.

''He's the type guy I like playing with,'' Chavis said. ''When you go back and look at who we won the (1998) national championship with, those guys looked more like Jesse than they did John Henderson.''

Indeed. The top tackles on that '98 squad were 6-foot Ron Green, 6-1 Billy Ratliff, 6-2 Darwin Walker and 6-2 Jeff Coleman.

In short -- no pun intended -- shorter tackles have an advantage over taller tackles.

''You get better leverage,'' Chavis said. ''And it's a lot easier to keep your feet moving and stay out of the scoop blocks you're going to have to deal with inside. It's a lot easier to scoop a 6-8 guy than it is a 6-foot guy.''

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