Inky ready to start

With a nickname like Inky, he'd better be tough.

And after last Saturday, Inquoris Johnson will get a chance to prove it – fast.

When Georgia's uber-physical tight end Leonard Pope rumbled over Vol cornerback Jason Allen, nastily popping his hip out of its rightful socket in the process, it left a gaping hole in an already inexperienced Tennessee secondary.

But it's a hole the 5-foot-9, 167-pound Johnson says he's not too small to fill.

"Things aren't going to change that much," Johnson said concerning the loss of Allen, who passed on NFL riches to return for his senior season after leading the Southeastern Conference in tackles a year ago. "A player of his caliber is very hard to replace, but we'll keep up our intensity.

"We're pulling together to make sure we get things done."

Most of that responsibility will fall on the true sophomore, who has never started a game. Johnson appears to have the slight edge over the wildly inconsistent Roshaun Fellows, who has wavered in and out of the starting lineup for going on two years now.

"Roshaun started most of last year, but he's probably not playing as fast as I like for him to play right now," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said after Wednesday's practice. "Inky has just waited for his opportunity.

"He's practiced well and did a nice job against Georgia."

The circumstances might not have been ideal, but Johnson did make a career-high three stops and fell on a fumble in the 27-14 setback to the Bulldogs. He'll need to be even better against sixth-ranked Alabama next Saturday. Crimson Tide quarterback Brodie Croyle has thrown nine touchdowns to just two interceptions while engineering Alabama to a 5-0 start.

"If it comes to me making my first start, I'll feel very good about being ready for that," said Johnson. "I'm certainly very excited about it."

But no matter how well he plays, it almost certainly won't be enough to single-handedly replace Allen, who was an All-American a year ago and was undoubtedly the leader of a unit that ranks 18th nationally in total defense.

"Injuries happen," said Fulmer, whose 17th-ranked Vols currently have the week off. "But as you go through the year you find new guys who are going to step up and be able to help us."

The Vols (3-2, 2-2 SEC) need that help as quickly as possible, especially with the resurging Tide waiting in Tuscaloosa just eight days from now. CBS will telecast the contest live at 3:30.

"Inky and Roshaun are competing to see who's going to be the guy," said Fulmer, who is 10-2 all-time against Alabama. "I'm comfortable with both of them."

Surprisingly, it's the other corner position that is completely locked down. Junior Jonathan Wade has come out of nowhere to intercept passes in consecutive games, returning one for a touchdown and the other to the opponent's 1-yard line. Regardless, the Volunteers will undoubtedly miss their senior captain, who can only watch helplessly from the sidelines.

"The most difficult thing for me is not being on the practice field," said Allen, who once again was leading the Vols in tackles before his ill-fated encounter with Pope. "Knowing I can't practice, can't run through the ‘T' and can't be there with my teammates.

"That's probably the hardest thing right now."


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