Can Mapu help UT?

He spent the past two years trying to convert sinners into Mormons. Now that his church mission is just about completed, J.T. Mapu is looking to convert himself back into a football player.

How quickly he succeeds could play a significant role in the success of the 2006 University of Tennessee Vols.

Prior to his mission, Mapu was emerging as one of the stalwarts of the Vol defense. As a sophomore in 2003 he recorded 15 solo tackles, 11 assists, 4.5 stops for 17 yards in losses, 2 sacks, 4 quarterback hurries, a fumble forced and a fumble recovery. In Tennessee's five-overtime win at Alabama Mapu registered 6 solo tackles, 3 assists and 9 total stops. Those are jaw-dropping numbers for a defensive tackle.

Because the two-year mission is an integral part of his religion, Mapu said goodbye to the Vols and hello to the road following the 2003 season. Now, after two years spent winning converts, he's hoping to help Tennessee start winning football games again.

The question is: After such a lengthy hiatus, how football-ready will he be when preseason drills begin in August?

"We'll see when he gets in here," Vol defensive coordinator John Chavis says.

Given that Jonathan Mapu hasn't played football in two years, the coordinator is understandably reluctant to pencil him in as a likely contributor for 2006.

"You plan with what you have, and anything other than that will be a plus," Chavis says.

Mapu, who celebrates his 22nd birthday this Sunday, just may provide that plus. He appears to have the physical and emotional maturity to get back "in the mix" in a reasonably short amount of time.

"He will be a bit more mature," Chavis concedes. "What kind of condition he'll be in, I don't know. But knowing J.T., it won't take him long to get ready to play."

Defensive tackle is a key area for the 2006 Vols. Justin Harrell is an All-America candidate but the other likely starter, Turk McBride, has been hampered by injuries and may be a better fit at end. Their backups consist of a walk-on (Matt McGlothlin), an injury-prone junior (Jared Hostetter), a sophomore who hasn't played enough to letter (Demonte Bolden) and three redshirt freshmen (Vladimir Richard, Dan Williams, Raymond Henderson) who have never played a down of college football.

Given all of the above, Mapu's maturity, experience and toughness could make him a valuable addition to the Vols' tackle corps this fall.

As Chavis puts it: "Certainly, he's a guy who potentially could come in and make an impact."

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