Tackle trouble

Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis hopes to start each football season with five dependable tackles. He'd love to have 10, mostly because the rugged nature of the position can thin the ranks in a hurry.

Certainly, Tennessee's tackle ranks are the thinnest they've been in a long, long time heading into Saturday's game with Alabama. Here's why:

- Jesse Mahelona exhausted his eligibility in 2005.

- Tony McDaniel decided to bypass his senior season and turn pro.

- Justin Harrell suffered a season-ending bicep injury in September.

- Turk McBride, moved over from end, is battling a hip injury.

As a result, Tennessee's tackle corps consists of a gimpy starter (McBride), a former walk-on (Matt McGlothlin), a guy who hadn't played football in two years (J.T. Mapu), a junior college transfer who never played tackle until three weeks ago (Walter Fisher), an underachieving sophomore (Demonte Bolden) and a raw redshirt freshman (Dan Williams).

Clearly, the Vols' tackle talent has fallen off considerably since first-round NFL Draft picks John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth departed following the 2001 season. Still, Chavis isn't complaining.

"We've made some progress," he says. "We're not where we would like to be or where we've been, but we're headed in the right direction. Losing a guy like Harrell is tough but a lot of guys have stepped up and are playing well.

Foremost among them is Mapu, who has emerged as the No. 3 guy behind starters McBride and McGlothlin.

"Mapu is playing better," Chavis says. "He's getting closer to where he needs to be and where we want him to be. He's done a fantastic job to do that. He's been away from football for a long time. Considering the time frame he had to get ready, I think he's done a remarkable job. I don't think we've seen the best of him yet. He's still making progress."

Bolden is a 6-6, 290-pounder with Henderson-type talent. Unfortunately for the Vols, he is just beginning to tap into his potential. Still, his best performance came in his most recent performance, two weeks ago against Georgia.

"Bolden really, really played good," Chavis notes. "And Dan Williams probably had his best practice Monday, which was a good sign. We're not where we want to be but the attitude and work ethic are there."

Given how little quality depth there is at tackle, McBride, McGlothlin and Mapu may have to play a lot of snaps Saturday vs. Bama. Then again, maybe not.

"We can't wear those other guys out," Chavis says. "We've got to make sure Turk stays fresh. We can't afford to get him nicked up. We have to make sure Matt stays fresh and we have to make sure Mapu stays fresh."

Harrell was Tennessee's finest defensive player, so his absence is huge. Still, Chavis refuses to make excuses.

"In preseason and spring practice he never got blocked, so he makes a difference," he coordinator says. "But we can't worry about that. We've got to worry about what we've got and make the best of it, which I think eventually will be pretty good.

"I'm not poor-mouthing. We've got some good players. We just don't have experience. But we're growing and I'm excited about the guys we've got."

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