UT rebuilding its front four

Several pro football analysts are projecting Justin Harrell as a late first-round pick in the upcoming National Football League Draft. The same folks are projecting Turk McBride as a third-rounder.

Replacing two defensive tackles of this caliber – as Tennessee must do in the next few months – is obviously a tall order. So, finding players with the right combination of size, strength, toughness and tenacity to fill the voids left by Harrell and McBride is a huge key this spring. Head coach Phillip Fulmer believes Tennessee has some viable candidates.

"Demonte' Bolden is that kind of football player if he will reach the level we expect him to," Fulmer said of the 6-6, 290-pound junior from Chattanooga. "He has made some progress and has a good attitude about it and certainly has the skill."

Another tackle with all of the necessary tools is 6-4, 290-pound senior Jonathan Mapu. He was emerging as a standout player before missing the 2004 and 2005 seasons on a mission for the Mormon Church. He spent '06 playing his way back into shape but should be close to his old form by fall.

"J.T. Mapu should be considerably better than he was last year," Fulmer said. "He did a great job for us last year considering he came in off his mission and was thrown into action mostly because of the injury to Justin. With his work in the off-season and getting him into 100 percent good shape, we expect good things from J.T."

The Vols should get adequate backup play at tackle from 6-3, 265-pound junior Walter Fisher, 6-3, 310-pound sophomore Dan Williams, 6-4, 256-pound sophomore Chase Nelson and 6-4, 265-pound redshirt freshman Victor Thomas. They might even get some help from 6-2, 290-pound freshman Donald Langley, a mid-term enrollee who already is practicing with the team.

Still, it appears Bolden and Mapu are the two key people at the position. As Fulmer noted: "Those guys have got to step up for us at defensive tackle."

Although Tennessee returns all of its defensive ends from 2006, that position needs upgrading, as well. The ends provided few big plays and virtually no pass rush last fall. Fulmer believes the returning starters are capable players, however.

"Xavier Mitchell had a good year last year and is trying to take a leadership role on this football team," the coach said. "He certainly is a hard worker.

"Antonio Reynolds is a guy who just never has developed as far as we thought he would. Hopefully, this spring will lead to us seeing him reach that level."

Behind Mitchell and Reynolds are 6-3, 260-pound junior Robert Ayers, plus sophomores Wes Brown (6-4, 256) and Andre Mathis (6-2, 255). Ayers and Mathis are converted linebackers with loads of untapped potential. Brown is a high-energy guy who began to come on near the end of 2006.

"We've got a group of guys there in the mix that we'll see how far they can grow and if they can find their place," Fulmer said. "There certainly is not a lack of numbers but we've got to find the guys who are committed to being as good as they can be."

Finding those guys would be simpler if all of the candidates were able to practice full-speed this spring. That is not the case, however.

Fulmer said Ayers, Fisher and Nelson are "very limited, and that's unfortunate. But we'll have a chance to see them once the fall starts."

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