New 'backers are key

The recent departure of 2005 starting linebackers Kevin Simon, Omar Gaither and Jason Mitchell didn't leave a hole in the University of Tennessee football team's defensive front seven. It left a virtual chasm.

Simon led the '05 Vols with 88 tackles. He was third on the team in pass breakups (5) and fourth in quarterback hurries (7). He also recorded 4.5 tackles for loss, forced a fumble and recovered a fumble.

Gaither ranked second in tackles (78), third in tackles for loss (7.5), third in sacks (4), first in fumbles forced (4) and fourth in big plays (13.5).

Mitchell, though missing one game and playing nine others with a partially torn ACL, registered 32 stops, forced two fumbles and broke up two passes.

Given the departure of this productive threesome, finding a new trio of linebackers was Job 1 for Vol defensive coordinator John Chavis during spring practice. He didn't complete the task but he made a lot of headway. Rising senior Marvin Mitchell, though currently suspended, appears to have locked down the middle linebacker job. Junior Ryan Karl and redshirt freshman Rico McCoy had impressive springs on the outside. Sophomores Adam Myers-White and Ellix Wilson showed flashes, further brightening the outlook.

The young backers performed so well in March and April that Chavis needed time to gather his thoughts before answering the question: What was the best thing that happened all spring?

"It's hard to put one finger on it," he said after considerable deliberation. "Ryan Karl taking over and showing his leadership ability was important. Rico McCoy getting the work he got was important. Both of those things were big for us. I'd say one of those two would be the biggest."

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