UT's big-time backers

Since projected starting linebackers Kevin Simon, Jason Mitchell and Omar Gaither will be seniors in 2005, none of the three will be playing for Tennessee in 2006. But all probably will be playing SOMEWHERE.

''All three of 'em should have an opportunity to continue playing this game for a while,'' Vol defensive coordinator John Chavis said recently. That's high praise, since the coordinator isn't given to lavish compliments.

Simon had a brilliant sophomore season in 2003, leading the Vols with 115 tackles, before missing most of 2004 with a torn ACL. Mitchell had 53 tackles, seven quarterback hurries and two sacks last season, splitting time between outside and middle linebacker. Gaither came on strong near the end of 2004, recording 18 tackles in the SEC Championship Game with Auburn and finishing with 88 total stops, third on the team.

Their experience will help in 2005. The problem is, Tennessee must replace Simon, Mitchell, Gaither AND reserve middle linebacker Jon Poe in time for the 2006 season.

''You're looking at a situation where we're getting a little bit top-heavy,'' Chavis said, referring to the fact his linebacking corps is overloaded with seniors. ''The thing we need to be able to do in the future is not have four or five linebackers graduate in one year. Maybe two a year.''

This is not the first time Tennessee's defense has lost heavily in one area; it's just the first time it happened at linebacker. A year ago, the Vols lost three of their four starting defensive backs (Gibril Wilson, Rashad Baker and Jabari Greer). Clearly, heavy losses in one area can handicap a defense the following year.

''That's hurt us from time to time,'' Chavis conceded. ''Last year we lost almost everybody out of the secondary.

On a positive note, Marvin Mitchell is healthy again. One of UT's brightest defensive prospects, the 6-3, 253-pounder is making his presence felt at middle linebacker this spring.

''Marvin's full-speed go,'' Chavis said. ''Before the injury we really thought he would've played a lot for us last year. I think he's picked up where he left off.''

The coordinator also is pleased with Jerod Mayo, a 6-2, 222-pound redshirt freshman with the versatility to play either of the outside 'backer spots.

''He's going to both weak and strongside,'' Chavis said. ''We obviously felt pretty strong about him last year. We think he's going to be a player for us down the road. He's talented. It's a matter of him getting enough work and getting in the mix.

''Jerod Mayo certainly will have an opportunity to earn some playing time time this year and will be very important to the future of Tennessee football.''


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