Front 7 must be rebuilt

One of Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis' favorite lines is: "I'd rather focus on who we have instead of who we don't have." That's particularly true this year because the losses from the 2005 stop unit are staggering.

Gone are starting ends Parys Haralson and Jason Hall, starting tackle Jesse Mahelona and backup Tony McDaniel, starting linebackers Kevin Simon, Omar Gaither and Jason Mitchell, along with star defensive back Jason Allen.

In spite of this, Chavis notes their passing in typical low-key style: "It's well documented that we lost some really fine players from last year."

Minus six members of last fall's starting front seven, the coordinator spent all spring scrambling to fill the holes. As preseason drills approach, he's still scrambling. Only one starting job is secure: All-America candidate Justin Harrell will line up at one of the tackle spots.

Fellow senior Turk McBride will start somewhere in the front four but where is yet to be determined. Chavis would like to use McBride at end, where his skills as a pass rusher can be fully exploited. First, though, Chavis must feel comfortable with the depth at tackle. The key may be Matt McGlothlin, a 6-foot, 300-pound senior walk-on who played in 2004, then missed the entire 2005 season on a disciplinary suspension.

"We may need to play Turk McBride outside to get the kind of pass rush we need," Chavis says. "That would give Matt McGlothlin a chance to step in and start for us."

Also competing for playing time at tackle are sophomore Demonte Bolden, junior Jared Hostetter, freshman Vladimir Richard and freshman Dan Williams. Bolden was a High School All-American whose performance has fallen short of his imposing potential to date.

"Demonte Bolden is getting himself in position to where he can help us," Chavis says. "He struggled a little bit early but toward the end of spring practice he was making good progress. He needs to get stronger in the weight room and he needs to play with great effort."

If McGlothlin or Bolden proves capable of filling the tackle spot opposite Harrell, McBride will be freed to start at end. The other end would be Antonio Reynolds, Robert Ayers, Xavier Mitchell or Walter Fisher. Reynolds and Mitchell are juniors. Ayers and Fisher are sophomores. None of the four has ever started a college game.

"There's not a lot of experience there," Chavis notes. "Parys Haralson and Jason Hall played a lot of football for us, and it doesn't look quite the same without those guys out there."

As if replacing three of four 2005 starters in the line isn't challenging enough, Chavis also faces the task of replacing all three starting linebackers from last fall. Only two of the returning ‘backers have started a college game. Fifth-year senior Marvin Mitchell has two starts and 50 career tackles. Sophomore Jerod Mayo has one start and 13 career tackles.

Other contenders for playing time at linebacker are juniors Ryan Karl and James Turner, sophomores Adam Myers-White and Ellix Wilson, redshirt freshmen Rico McCoy and Andre Mathis. McCoy had a spectacular spring but Karl appears likely to win the third starting spot due to his edge in experience.

Despite the overall lack of maturity and experience, Chavis believes this year's linebacking corps is just as skilled as last year's.

"Are they as good a players right now? Probably not," he said. "But, talent-wise, there's no question they're as good. It's my job to get them to the point they can go play."

Tennessee ranked 10th among the 12 Southeastern Conference teams in pass defense last fall, allowing 215.7 yards per game. Pass defense should be the strength of the 2006 defense, however. Except for Allen, a first-round NFL Draft pick who missed the last half of 2005 with a dislocated hip, the secondary returns intact.

Safeties Jonathan Hefney and Antwan Stewart started every game last fall but are being challenged by talented sophomore Demetrice Morley. Jonathan Wade and Inquoris Johnson started the last half of 2005 at the cornerback spots but are being pushed by former starter Roshaun Fellows.

"The secondary should be the strength of our defense," Chavis says. "The unique thing about this situation is that, even though we're returning the four guys who started the last six ballgames for us, there's still competition going on. That's going to help you get better.

"We also have worked some of the safeties (Stewart, Hefney) at corner. Hefney can go out and play corner if we need for him to. We're going to be very versatile back there."

The secondary had better be versatile. With six new faces in the front seven, there will be tremendous pressure on the defensive backfield.

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