D is for defense ... and depth

Nine starters are back from the 2004 starting unit. Add several talented redshirt freshmen and several more true freshman, and Tennessee's 2005 defense has more talent and depth than at any time since 1998.

Even low-key defensive coordinator John Chavis concedes that this stop unit has outstanding depth.

"I feel real good about it," he said recently. "We've probably got more people we could put in the game than any other time I can think of."

Consider the following:

Tennessee will start two senior ends, 2004 All-SEC pick Parys Haralson and Jason Hall. Backing them are two outstanding sophomores – Xavier Mitchell and Antonio Reynolds. Redshirt freshman Robert Ayers had a terrific preseason camp but will sit out the first two games on a disciplinary suspension. Sophomore Jared Hostetter allows the Vols to go three deep on each side. True freshman Wes Brown is listed No. 3 on the depth chart until Ayers returns.

The starting tackles are 2004 All-American Jesse Mahelona and All-SEC candidate Justin Harrell. The third tackle, junior Turk McBride, probably would start for at least nine of the other 11 SEC programs. Junior Tony McDaniel may be the most talented tackle on the team but he'll miss the first two games on suspension. True freshman Demonte Bolden has the potential to be a star. Another true freshman, Vladimir Richard, is running No. 2 at right tackle until McDaniel regains his eligibility. Matt McGlothlin, who started a game in 2003 before sitting out 2004 for violating team rules, is running third team.

All three of the starting linebackers (Kevin Simon, Jason Mitchell and Omar Gaither) are seniors. Two of them (Simon, Gaither) are on the watch list for the Butkus Award. Redshirt freshman Jerod Mayo, Mitchell's backup, is going to be a superstar. Sophomore Ryan Karl is pushing Gaither and junior Marvin Mitchell is a bigger but less experienced version of Simon. Third-teamers Daniel Brooks and Jon Poe are excellent run-stoppers, although Brooks is yet another Vol sidelined by a disciplinary suspension.

Chavis recently said he is "really pleased with what Mayo has gotten accomplished" and there is "no doubt" he is coming on strong. "Marvin Mitchell's doing the same thing … and Ryan Karl," the coordinator added. "We can go two-deep, and we've got some other guys (who can contribute)."

The secondary is the weak link of UT's defense, yet there is much better depth there than a year ago. That's because talented true freshmen Demetrice Morley and Antonio Wardlow have claimed the No. 2 jobs at free safety and strong safety, respectively. Antwan Stewart and Jonathan Hefney are the starting safeties, while Jason Allen and Roshaun Fellows are the top hands at cornerback. Jonathan Wade briefly unseated Fellows before suffering a hip flexor. Sophomore Inky Johnson has made some strides and now appears ready to be a key contributor at cornerback, as well.

Clearly, this shapes up as one of the deepest and most talented defenses the Vols have fielded under Chavis. That gives Tennessee an opportunity to win every time it takes the field.

"Obviously, to even have a chance to win a championship, you've got to be darned good on defense, and I think we're headed in that direction," head coach Phillip Fulmer said recently. "There's some speed, there's some depth. I'm really pleased. If we can carry the attitude we've had so far defensively into the season and play that way, we'll find enough points to help us win."


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