D ... as in dominating

With five of 15 spring football practice workouts completed, Tennessee's defense is way ahead of the offense.

So, what else is new?

The Vols have held two situational scrimmages in recent days, and each time the stop unit dominated. Or, as head coach Phillip Fulmer put it: ''The defense certainly set the tone.''

That isn't surprising. Since defensive players typically rely more on power than finesse, they usually are ahead of the offensive players in early workouts. But this year's Vol defense should be pretty imposing even after the attack unit develops some continuity.

The D-line returns five quality players -- All-America tackle Jesse Mahelona, All-SEC end Parys Haralson, talented Turk McBride, Cotton Bowl Defensive MVP Justin Harrell and dependable Jason Hall.

Still, Fulmer is hoping to see progress among the line backups between now and the start of the 2005 season.

''We need Robert Ayers (end), Antonio Reynolds (end), LaRon Harris (tackle) and Demonte Bolden (tackle) to develop a lot over the spring and summer, so by fall they can be in the mix,'' the coach said.

Despite the departure of Kevin Burnett, Tennessee's linebacker corps also projects to be an exceptionally salty unit. Kevin Simon has been a real force when healthy. Omar Gaither came on like gangbusters late last season and could be a rising star. Jason Mitchell, forced to play middle linebacker by Simon's injury two games into the 2004 season, is back on the outside where he's most comfortable. It's a pretty imposing group of athletes.

''We have three guys who are smart, can run,'' Fulmer said. ''They're great character guys, tough guys. It's a good-looking linebacker corps ... first team.''

As with the defensive line, however, the head coach is seriously concerned about depth behind the projected starters. Jon Poe is solid in the middle but Marvin Mitchell is coming off a knee injury and Daniel Brooks has been a disappointment to date. Ryan Karl, Ellix Wilson and Jerod Mayo are talented but unproven. Thus, the outlook is a little muddled once you get past the three starters.

''Our problem is the depth behind them,'' Fulmer said. ''That's significant ... to develop the guys that are going to be the linebackers of the future.''


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