'Tennessee Drill' is a HIT!!!!

The mood at Lindsey Nelson Stadium changed dramatically as the 12th period of Tuesday's morning workout arrived. There was an electricity in the air, a tension so thick you could cut it with a knife. Veteran players buzzed with excitement, no doubt prompting freshman teammates to ask, ''What's the big deal?''

The big deal was the approach of The Tennessee Drill. It highlights the Vols' first full-pads workout each August. It also separates the men from the boys. It's football at its most basic ... one quarterback, one running back, one blocker and one defender — all in a four-yard corridor of humanity that almost resembles a cockfighting pit.

At the signal, the blocker and defender collide. Usually, this results in a stalemate, enabling the running back to take his handoff and run by the combatants. Sometimes, though, the blocker will flatten the defender. When this occurs, offensive players rush to the blocker's side to celebrate the victory. Occasionally, the defender will whip the blocker and belt the running back. When this occurs, defensive players rush to the defender's side and share in his moment of glory. Given the emotionally charged atmosphere, it's no surprise that brief scuffles are commonplace.

Based on Tuesday morning's Tennessee Drill, the Vols have some ferocious freshman who will bear watching in the coming weeks. Because UT's offensive players practice in white jersey with orange numbers (and because teammates tend to crowd the combatants, obscuring the vision of spectators), identifying the blockers in the Tennessee drill is virtually impossible. Identifying the most impressive orange-clad defenders is considerably easier.

One defender who stood out was Jonathan Mapu. The rugged freshman defensive end from Hawaii shed his blocker and made a bone-jarring hit on the running back ... not once but TWICE. He may have been the big winner in the Tennessee drill.

Freshman linebacker Parys Haralson also whipped his blocker and dropped the running back.

Freshman defensive tackle Heath Benedict literally body-slammed a back to the turf after beating his blocker.

Redshirt freshman linebacker Jason Mitchell was so impressive in his stint that defensive coordinator John Chavis rushed up to slap him on the helmet.

Freshman defensive tackle LaRon Harris and senior defensive tackle Ed Kendrick also flexed some muscle in the Tennessee Drill.

Two freshmen, 240-pound tight end Aaron Kirkland and 215-pound linebacker Omar Gaither, apparently couldn't get enough of one another. They went head-to-head three consecutive times. Kirkland seemed to get the better of it.

Chavis declined to single out any of his defenders for their work in the Tennessee Drill but he clearly was pleased with the grit his troops showed.

''It's a toughness drill,'' he said. ''They're out there in front of their peers and there's no place to hide. You're either going to be a man out there or you're not.... If a young man is going to hide, he's going to try and find a place then. I didn't see anybody on either side of the ball hiding this morning.... It's hard to practice being tough. Either you're tough or you're not, and it shows up in that drill.''

Although the blockers seemed to win most of the battles, Chavis wasn't discouraged.

''Defensively, you hope you can get off blocks and make plays,'' he said. Then, grinning smugly, he added: ''But those guys on offense do as good a job of holding as anybody you'll see, so it's hard. You almost have to have a sledgehammer to get off some of those blocks.''

From the coaches' standpoint, the best thing about the Tennessee Drill is that it provides valuable information about the combatants involved. The guys who shine in the Tennessee Drill usually shine on Saturday, too.

''It tells you a lot about the character of the young man who's in there,'' Chavis said. ''We've got a lot of guys out there who have an opportunity to be special.''

Many of these happen to be linebackers. The Vols appear loaded at the 'backer spots this fall, especially if Haralson, Gaither and fellow freshman Marvin Mitchell continue to perform as well as they have in the early practices.

''That's a group we can get some help from,'' Chavis said. ''We're excited about those three. All three can potentially help us this year.''

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