"Demonte Bolden has gotten better," head coach Phillip Fulmer says. "There's been a sense of urgency in him, particularly since Justin got hurt. All of a sudden, it was like 'Oh, my goodness, the whole team is counting on me.'"
A former Prep All-American, Bolden probably has as much raw talent as any defensive lineman the Vols have had since former Outland Trophy winner John Henderson. Whereas Henderson maximized his potential, though, Bolden has underachieved to date. Still, Fulmer sees signs of progress.
"It's a little different attitude," the head coach says. "Where the hell has that been since spring practice? That's been the frustrating thing about not getting it out of him more."
Bolden clearly has the physical tools to be an All-SEC player. He's familiar with his assignments. He's tough enough and durable enough. He simply hasn't put forth the consisent effort needed to tap into his eye-popping potential.
"I think he's immature, like a lot of 18- and 19-year-old guys," Fulmer says. "He's just immature. He's learning and he's going a little faster now."
Some players simply grow up more rapidly than others. Redshirt freshman defensive end Wes Brown, for instance, is already playing with the consistency of a veteran.
"You take a Wes Brown, who's the same age (as Bolden) basically, but he is more mature and has made a more significant contribution," Fulmer says. "There's different stages of young people."
With Harrell done for the year, Bolden needs to step up his game immediately. So does junior tackle Jonathan Mapu, who is rounding into shape following a two-year Mormon mission.
"We need for guys like Bolden and Mapu and Wes Brown and other guys to continue to step up," Fulmer notes.
Defensive line coach Dan Brooks likes to use a five-man rotation at tackle. That might've been possible this fall if Tony McDaniel hadn't skipped his senior year to turn pro and if Harrell hadn't been injured. Those setbacks leave the Vols with two proven tackles - Turk McBride and Matt McGlothlin - plus several guys trying to play their way into the mix.
"Would I like to get back to playing five or six defensive tackles?" Fulmer asks rhetorically. "Absolutely. If we could get back to that I would really like it. But to give up a chunk of yardage because a (reserve) guy gets out of gap or something like that ... you can't afford to do that."
Fulmer planned to give his reserve defenders more playing time but a one-point defeat of Air Force in Game 2 and a one-point loss to Florida in Game 3 made that difficult. Backups saw some action in Game 1 vs. Cal but promptly surrendered 15 fourth-quarter points.
"We put the whole second unit in there against Cal," Fulmer notes, adding that the Golden Bears ran through the Vols "like (crap) through a goose."