No locks at linebacker

Two of Tennessee's starting linebackers from 2006 are returning for 2007 but, interestingly enough, it's the "other guy" who may be closest to having a first-team job locked down for the season ahead.

Jerod Mayo, a 6-2, 230-pound junior who started 11 of the 13 games last fall, led the Vols in tackles for loss (12.5) and sacks (5). He was Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week following a three-sack effort in the 2006 opener vs. Cal. According to head coach Phillip Fulmer, however, even Mayo is no sure thing to start next fall.

The reason is three-fold: He is recovering from a knee injury that caused him to miss spring practice; he is moving to a new spot (middle linebacker) and he is getting some stiff competition from Ellix Wilson.

"Ellix Wilson has put himself in a position to contribute, if not start," Fulmer said recently. "He and Jerod will compete, and that's always good for everybody."

Ryan Karl is a 6-0, 215-pound senior who started all 13 games at strongside linebacker last fall. He ranked fourth in solo tackles (50) and second in tackles for loss (9). The best of UT's linebackers in one-on-one coverage, he also broke up four passes. Even so, he is no lock to start in 2007, either. He's being pushed by another safety-turned-linebacker.

"Adam Myers-White has closed the gap considerably on Ryan Karl," Fulmer said recently, "so that's a competitive situation. We challenged Ryan this spring to improve his tackling, and I've seen good progress in that."

Strangely enough, the linebacker who may have the strongest grip on a first-team berth is the one guy who didn't have a first-team berth last fall. That would be Rico McCoy, a dynamic 6-1, 215-pound sophomore whose only two starts last fall came in Games 12 and 13, when Mayo was sidelined by injury.

"Rico McCoy established himself pretty well at weakside linebacker," Fulmer said at the end of spring practice. "He's a guy that just kept showing up making plays."

Although linebacker is probably the strength of Tennessee's team, Mayo's absence all spring kept the big three from working in unison. Thus, Fulmer is eager to see how they jell in August.

"Until Jerod Mayo gets back out there, I don't think we will have as competitive a situation at linebacker as we could have," the head man said. "But they have made some progress."

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