Ends must come through

To be an effective defense, Tennessee must put pressure on the quarterback in passing situations. To mount a pass rush, the Vols must get heat from at least one defensive end. And that's the challenge facing defensive ends coach Steve Caldwell.

Caldwell loses a combined 15.5 sacks with the departures of Parys Haralson and Jason Hall. He loses two veteran starters who knew the ropes.

He returns some athleticism, but it is unproven and injury prone – not a good combination when you factor in a new trio of starting linebackers.

``All of them have the talent or they wouldn't be here,'' Caldwell said.

Defensive coordinator John Chavis loves to blitz, but he knows you can't offer a steady dose of sending linebackers and cornerbacks without getting burned a time or two. That's why it's so important to get a pass rush from the front four.

Juniors Antonio Reynolds and Xavier Mitchell and sophomore Robert Ayers have the most playing time. Wes Brown redshirted as a freshman. Walter Fisher, an impressive junior college transfer, had offseason shoulder surgery and likely won't be available for the first month of the season.

Mitchell and Ayers each have had shoulder surgery and Brown missed the spring game with a knee problem, but each should be ready to go when the team reports Aug. 4.

Those three ends combined for 2.5 sacks last season.

``When you look at the speed factor, I think Antonio Reynolds,'' Caldwell said. ``He's played quite a few snaps. He's got a chance to make some things happen and he looks great. He's bigger than he's ever been.

``Robert Ayers has a ton of talent, a ton of talent. The more he plays the better he will be. He's grown up so much in the last year. He's got to keep coming with the same attitude that he has right now.

``Xavier, if he's well, can do some things for us because he's lost some weight and he looks so much quicker doing drills.''

The thing holding Ayers back is learning to play the run, an interesting problem for a former linebacker. The same concern was evident with former Vol defensive end Constantine Ritzmann.

``This sounds a little funny, but Robert comes off the ball well when we're doing drills,'' Caldwell said. ``When we do the Tennessee drill, one on one, he can wear them out. But as soon as you get him in a scrimmage, he wants to pop up and look around. If he can play the run, he can rush the passer.''

Ayers, Mitchell and Reynolds are all in the 6-3, 255 range.

Another end to watch for is Brown (6-4, 256).

``Don't count out Wes Brown,'' Caldwell said. ``He's a young man that's shown some things in spring practice. The kids call him Little Pollack.''

That would be after former Georgia All-America defensive end David Pollack.

``He's not quite as fast as Pollack, but his technique and some things he does is really exciting,'' Caldwell said.

Depending on the health of the ends and the emergence of the defensive tackles, Turk McBride could play end. McBride and All-American Justin Harrell form a formidable tandem at defensive tackle. But if Matt McGlothlin, Dan Williams, Demonte Bolden and J.T. Mapu come along, McBride could move to end.

If so, McBride would be the only end who has started a game.

``That's a great challenge for me,'' Caldwell said of the inexperience.

The challenge will be immediate. California has had one of the top college offenses in the country the last five years. Air Force runs a complex Flex Bone. And Florida might be the best offensive team in the SEC.

Those are Tennessee's first three opponents.

``Reynolds and Mitchell have played a lot of football and they know what it takes to win in this league,'' Caldwell said. ``They know what's expected of them. I think they'll mature quickly.

``The thing is, they've got the pressure on them. I'm more concerned about their approach to practice and what they get done in practice because if they'll set the tempo in practice, they'll play the game.''


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