Carrying 40 extra pounds and two years' of rust, Jonathan Mapu was nowhere near the player in 2006 he had been in 2002 and 2003. But the Vols needed him so badly that he had to play anyway.
"He'd had two years off, so he wasn't as quick as he had been," head coach Phillip Fulmer recalls. "He wasn't as physical as a guy who'd been in your program would've been. And he certainly wasn't in great condition at the beginning of the season.
"All of those things should change this year. By fall we're hopeful he'll be in 100 percent shape – stronger, quicker and back more like we thought he would be."
Defensive coordinator John Chavis watched Mapu play his way into shape last fall, gradually losing weight and regaining the skills that made him one of Tennessee's brightest defensive prospects prior to his two-year hiatus. After some intense off-season conditioning, Mapu should be closer to his old form this spring.
"He's getting back," Chavis says. "He's made a lot of strides. Certainly, I think he feels more comfortable."
Tennessee had a superior defensive tackle corps in 2005, even without Mapu. Jesse Mahelona was an All-American. Fellow starter Justin Harrell was a budding star, and chief backup Tony McDaniel was blessed with mind-boggling potential.
All were gone three games into the 2006 season, however. Mahelona was out of eligibility. McDaniel decided to skip his senior season and jump to the NFL. Harrell suffered a torn bicep that wiped out the last 10 games of his senior season. This series of events made redshirting Mapu an impossibility.
"He had to help us some last year," Chavis recalls. "He did a really, really great job for us, given the circumstances."
"He did a great job for us last year for where he was (physically)," the head man says. "I was really happy he was here. Thank goodness he was here because we were not very good after Tony McDaniel decided to go to pro football and Justin Harrell got hurt."
Whereas Mapu was a stop-gap measure in 2006, he is expected to be a mainstay in 2007.
"I think he's a guy," Chavis says, "who can step up and make a big impact on this football team."