Jesse's a catalyst

Defensive tackle, projected as Tennessee's weakest position in preseason, has become one of the Vols' major strengths. A considerable portion of the credit for this goes to Jesse Mahelona.

The 6-foot-1, 300-pound junior college transfer plays with a fire that has ignited those around him.

''Jesse has brought a lot of leadership qualities,'' defensive coordinator John Chavis said. ''He's a tremendous worker ... just tireless. And he's a tough guy. He's made the guys around him play better. He's brought out the best in them. He's got that kind of motor. He's a tempo-setter.

''Every coach needs one or two guys like that at their position. With the lack of depth and lack of experience we had coming back, we didn't have a proven guy inside. Now you look at what those guys have done ... I think a lot of that has to do with the tempo and effort Jesse practices and plays with. And obviously a lot of credit goes to (line coach) Dan Brooks. He's done a tremendous job coaching those guys and getting them ready to play.''

Certainly, the defensive tackle play has been a pleasant surprise. Mahelona has been a godsend. Justin Harrell has stayed healthy and finally begun living up to his potential. Tony McDaniel is finally starting to put it all together. Converted end Turk McBride has the quickness and toughness to be a future star. Suddenly, D-tackle is one of Tennessee's strongest positions ... not one of its weakest.

''If you're going to be strong, that's where it starts,'' Chavis said. ''They (tackles) have been very, very good. You can't call our tackle position a weak link, I guarantee it. It's been one of the strengths of the defense, no question.''

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