Vol D seeks consistency

Tennessee's 2004 defense was like the little girl with the little curl in the nursery rhyme who, "When she was good, she was very, very good, but when she was bad, she was horrid."

The Vol stop unit was similarly erratic in ‘04. It was shredded for 286 passing yards and three passing touchdowns by Florida in Game 2. It surrendered 400 total yards and 34 points to Auburn in Game 4. It gave up 567 total yards to South Carolina in Game 8. It allowed an embarrassing number of points vs. lowly Vanderbilt (33) and Kentucky (31) in Games 10 and 11, then gave up 559 yards and 38 points in an SEC Championship Game rematch with Auburn.

Still, the defense had its good days. In Games 5, 6 and 7 Tennessee limited Georgia to 265 total yards, held Ole Miss to 257 and limited Alabama to 219. The Vols allowed Notre Dame just 216 total yards in Game 9 and shut out Texas A&M until second-teamers allowed a meaningless TD in the waning minutes of the Cotton Bowl.

No one is more acutely aware of last year's defensive extremes than head coach Phillip Fulmer.

"Our defense last year at times played outstanding," he said during the recent SEC Media Days in Birmingham. "But we really struggled at the end of the year up until the bowl game, then played really well in the bowl game."

Losing middle linebacker Kevin Simon to a Game 2 knee injury hurt. So did the midseason dismissal of safety Brandon Johnson. So did an inexperienced secondary that featured two freshman cornerbacks.

"We were the youngest defense in the conference at the beginning of the year," Fulmer said, noting that all members of 2004's youthful secondary "are back, and I expect big things from them."

The best cure for a troubled secondary, of course, is a strong pass rush, and Tennessee's should be pretty good in 2005. Three starters from the '04 defensive front return, including All-America tackle Jesse Mahelona and All-SEC end Parys Haralson.

"Parys Haralson is as good a defensive end as there is in the conference," Fulmer said. "Jesse Mahelona ended up being an All-American for us … played really well."

Although Mahelona got most of the accolades, Tennessee has two other tackles who are blessed with star-caliber ability.

"Justin Harrell was Defensive MVP of the Cotton Bowl, had a great season for us," Fulmer noted. "And the best of the bunch may be Turk McBride, who didn't get a lot of credit last year."

The tackle corps also returns junior Tony McDaniel, who recently rejoined the team following resolution of an assault charge, and freshman Demonte Bolden, a mid-term enrollee who turned heads with a very good spring.

The top ends, other than Haralson, are senior Jason Hall, plus sophomores Antonio Reynolds and Xavier Mitchell.

Fulmer said he is "encouraged about our defensive front," noting that the Vols "have got some ability there."

Three seniors will be starting at linebacker, now that Simon is fully recovered from last fall's knee injury.

"Kevin is back and 100 percent," Fulmer said. "Two years ago he led us in tackles, and I am expecting a huge year from Kevin. He's one of our leaders and a really outstanding football player."

Simon's injury forced a reshuffling of the linebacker corps last year that resulted in Omar Gaither joining the starting lineup. Gaither recorded 18 tackles in the SEC Championship Game vs. Auburn and "played exceptionally well," according to Fulmer.

The other first-team linebacker is Jason Mitchell, who has returned to his accustomed spot on the outside after assuming Simon‘s middle post for most of 2004. As a result, Fulmer said he is "pretty happy with where we are at linebacker."

The secondary, last season's weak link on defense, should be improved.

"We'll be better at the beginning of the season than we were at any time last year because we will be more athletic in the secondary," Fulmer said.

The head coach bases this belief on the switch of former cornerbacks Jonathan Hefney and Antwan Stewart to safety.

"That's why I said we will be better … we will be more athletic," Fulmer said.

The secondary would get a significant upgrade in athleticism if Jonathan Wade ever plays up to his potential. That hasn't happened to date because he has missed considerable practice time running track each spring. Still, Fulmer remains hopeful Wade can harness his tremendous physical gifts and become a major contributor.

"I just think we need to get a lot more out of him than what we have gotten," the coach said, "because I think he's talented enough to be an All-SEC or an All-American kind of football player. That's our challenge with him."

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