Seriously underrated

Tennessee has great success converting in-state "sleeper" running backs into outside linebackers. The Vols did it with Jasper's Eric Westmoreland. Then they did it with South Pittsburg's Eddie Moore. Now they're at it again.

Ryan Karl rushed for 66 touchdowns and better than 5,000 career yards as a tailback at Battle Ground Academy in Franklin but quickly moved to defense upon arriving at UT. After two years as a backup, he appears likely to start at strongside linebacker when the 2006 Vols open Sept.2 against Cal.

Karl was one of the busiest players in last Saturday's full-scale scrimmage. Although he was credited with just one minus-yardage stop and one pass breakup, he did a terrific job blanketing receivers in pass coverage. He also helped funnel Vol tailbacks inside, so the middle linebacker and safeties could make stops.

"We came out, after seeing film of the last (Aug. 8) scrimmage, with a chip on our shoulder and wanting to stop the run," the 6-0, 215-pound junior said.

Karl is one of six new starters in Tennessee's defensive front seven, so fans are naturally concerned that there may be a drop-off in effectiveness this season. Karl isn't concerned at all.

"I think the defense is right where we need to be for the time we're at now," he said. "We've got a couple more things to learn but I think we have the athletes to do it."

Karl is a nice guy off the field but a very aggressive guy on the field. He showed as much on Saturday. Vol quarterbacks normally wear green jerseys in scrimmages, meaning they are not to be tackled. That was not the case Saturday, and Vol defenders were slow to adjust. After one quarterback picked up decent yardage on a scramble, defensive coordinator John Chavis bellowed, "If he starts running around, put him on the ground!"

Karl took the words to heart. No. 1 QB Erik Ainge turned upfield on a scramble a few plays later, and Karl prepared to unload on him. When the 6-foot-6 quarterback suddenly went into a protective slide, Karl popped him anyway, incurring a 15-yard penalty.

"A lot of guys weren't used to it," Karl said when asked about the late hit. "They were busting the quarterback still. But it's good for the quarterback. It gets them ready for a game situation."

Tennessee's defense looks like it's ready for game situations right now. It appears the new front seven is going to be just fine.

"We have the athletes," Karl said. "We're going to come out and try to get Cal. We're GOING to get ‘em."

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