Tackle trouble?

Tennessee's football team has fielded its best defenses when it had run-stuffers at tackle – guys like John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth (2001), Darwin Walker and Billy Ratliff (1998), Justin Harrell and Jesse Mahelona (2005).

The run of tenacious tackles would run out in 2006, however. Once Harrell went down with a torn bicep, the Vols were reduced to starting an end (Turk McBride) at one tackle spot and a former walk-on (Matt McGlothlin) at the other.

Now that McBride and McGlothlin are out of eligibility, the 2007 outlook appears even shakier than it was for 2006. Still, head coach Phillip Fulmer recently expressed confidence that UT will be OK across the defensive front next fall.

"I think Demonte Bolden has made significant improvement," Fulmer said. "And I think Xavier Mitchell has made significant improvement."

Bolden, a 6-6, 290-pound rising junior tackle, actually recorded more regular-season stops in 2006 as a backup (19) than McGlothlin registered as a starter (14). Mitchell, a 6-2, 255-pound rising senior end, recorded 37 regular-season stops, with 8 tackles for loss, including 4 sacks. No other Vol defensive lineman had more than 1 sack.

Tennessee managed just 17 regular-season sacks in 2006. As a result, Fulmer is looking for a lot more production from ends Antonio Reynolds and Robert Ayers. Reynolds, a rising senior, started the first 10 regular-season games of 2006. Ayers, a rising junior, started the last two.

"I thought Antonio Reynolds would've had a bigger year than he had," Fulmer said. "I still think he's very capable of doing that but it (2006 performance) was less than I expected it to be."

Ayers was even more of an underachiever.

"We said at the beginning of the year that Robert Ayers could be a big difference-maker," Fulmer noted. "He had his flashes but nothing consistent for what he should be able to do. Basically, it's him (that is to blame).

"His practice habits aren't always the best they should be, and that prevents him from being in the game and being the kind of player he should be. Physically, he's very gifted. We're working on that. It's nothing we just let slide. He's gotten better but not to the level that's in him."

Tennessee also returns rising sophomore Wes Brown, who saw some backup action in 2006. Converted linebacker Andre Mathis, another rising sophomore, also will compete for playing time at end in 2006. Five-star prep commitment Ben Martin could join the mix, too.

The tackle returnees, other than Bolden, include rising senior J.T. Mapu, rising junior Walter Fisher and rising sophomores Dan Williams and Chase Nelson. Two more tackle prospects – Victor Thomas and Jarrod Shaw – redshirted in 2006.

In addition, the Vols have three defensive tackle prospects committed for their 2007 signing class. These are William Brimfield (Neeses, S.C.), Rolando Melancon (Lutcher, La.) and Donald Langley (Germantown, Md.).

One thing's for certain: Tennessee's defense won't be significantly better in 2007 unless the production from its tackles is markedly better than it was in 2006.

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