Drawing the battle lines

At its most basic, college football is a pretty simple game. If your offensive line plays well, you should be able to score points. If your defensive line plays well, you should be able to limit the opponent's points.

If neither plays well, you should be able to land a gig as an expert analyst for ESPN. That's where most of the fired coaches seem to find gainful employment these days.

Given this – and the fact he's a former lineman himself – Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer is understandably determined to upgrade the Vols' offensive and defensive fronts in time for the 2007 opener at California. Both were areas of concern heading into spring practice and both remain areas of concern coming out of spring practice.

"You'd really like to have another month of spring practice for our defensive front and our offensive front," he said recently. "I do believe you win championships at those positions."

The offensive front is looking to replace three-year starter Arron Sears and two-year starter David Ligon.

Sears, a 2006 All-American, is being projecting by some experts as a late first-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. He could play either tackle and either guard without missing a beat. Filling his shoes is an enormous task.

Ligon, though less heralded, was a steady performer who was versatile enough to start at center in 2005 and at guard in '06.

The task of retooling the offensive line during the spring proved impossible. Two projected starters – tackle Eric Young and guard Anthony Parker – missed all of spring practice due to injuries, while another projected starter – center Josh McNeil – missed most of the spring due to injury and a disciplinary suspension.

Meanwhile, UT's defensive front was looking to replace the top three tackles from 2006 – Justin Harrell, Turk McBride and Matt McGlothlin. Harrell is projected as a first-round NFL draft pick. McBride is pegged as a late second-round to third-rounder. McGlothlin was a gap-plugger who was solid against the run. Obviously, that's a lot of talent to replace at one position.

The good news: Jonathan Mapu showed flashes this spring of the skills that made him one of Tennessee's brightest prospects before he left for a two-year Mormon mission following the 2003 season. Fellow tackles Demonte Bolden and Dan Williams had their moments, as well.

Still, the front four – like UT's offensive front – remains a work in progress.

"We'll keep working," Fulmer said. "We'll have a great summer. We'll get a couple of guys healthy who haven't been able to be out there. I think we'll have a great chance to go back to work (in August) and improve."

On the flip side of that coin, the head man said the area that made the most progress during the spring was the secondary. He was especially pleased with the play of cornerbacks Antonio Gaines and Marsalous Johnson.

"I think those two guys have shown the tenacity to play," the head man said, "and that's been good to see."


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