Depth is debatable

Playing a lot of people is the best of all worlds. It keeps the starters fresh. It keeps the reserves happy. It builds depth for the future. Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer hopes to play a lot of people this season but he has a higher priority: Winning.

Playing a lot of people and winning in 2006 may not be compatible goals. The Vols aren't exactly overflowing with depth in the offensive and defensive lines. Roshaun Fellows' season-ending pectoral surgery has thinned the ranks at cornerback. Inexperience at linebacker could limit how many ‘backers play in the early games.

Fulmer noted that first-team defensive linemen Justin Harrell and Turk McBride did "a great job" in Tuesday's scrimmage and that "the push inside was phenomenal." After those two, however, UT's defensive front is looking for help. If none is forthcoming, the head man says the starting front four may have to play more snaps than usual.

"We just need some other guys," Fulmer said. "If we have to play with 13 or 14 guys on defense, hey, we've done that before. We can do that. If it's 13 or 14 on offense, we can do that, too."

Two factors could bolster the defensive line's depth. Xavier Mitchell has returned from nagging injuries and fellow end Robert Ayers will soon shed the protective "club" he's been wearing on his injured hand.

"But they still don't give us the dynamics that Turk gives us outside," Fulmer said. "We could move Turk inside (to tackle) and play those guys (at end). We can get Ayers out of that club – hopefully next week – and he can use his hand."

McBride's ability to excel at both end and tackle boosts depth by providing some flexibility. Or, as Fulmer put it: "We can roll that around a little bit."

Another plus for the defensive front is the progress of junior tackle J.T. Mapu. Fresh from a two-year Mormon mission, Mapu is gradually regaining his stamina and strength.

"We're still trying to get him where he can play 20 to 30 plays a game," Fulmer said. "You'd hope you'd be able to sprinkle in 20, 25, 30 plays. It would really help if he could do that."


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