Tackle is key on D

Tennessee's football team is two quality defensive tackles shy of a great front seven. Whether the Vols can solidify those two spots between now and the Sept. 1 opener at California is a big key to the 2007 season.

Tennessee returns both starting ends from 2006 – Xavier Mitchell and Antonio Reynolds. The Vols also return three of the top four linebackers from last fall – Jerod Mayo, Ryan Karl and Rico McCoy. That's why head coach Phillip Fulmer figures the Big Orange is just a couple of tackles away from being really good in the front seven.

"We have a chance to be a very productive defensive football team," the head man said this week. "We still have some work to do, some development for those guys. I'm particularly concerned about our defensive tackle position."

Still, there are two reasons for optimism at tackle.

First, Jonathan Mapu has had a year to re-adjust to football. He proved more than capable of playing the tackle position as a sophomore in 2003. After missing the 2004 and 2005 seasons on a Mormon mission, he spent 2006 playing his way back into shape. He should be back at his 2003 form in 2007.

Secondly, Mapu and the other defensive tackle candidates are being tutored by Dan Brooks, one of the most respected assistant coaches in the SEC.

"Dan Brooks does the best job of anybody in the country coaching defensive tackles," Fulmer said. "All you need to do is go back and look at the track record (to see) what he's performed over the years."

Even if Mapu returns to his pre-mission form and Brooks does a great job of teaching, the Vols need another dependable tackle or two to emerge from a list of contenders that includes Demonte Bolden, Dan Williams, Walter Fisher and Chase Nelson.

"We need some guys to respond," Fulmer said. "It's very difficult to replace a first-round (NFL Draft pick) like Justin Harrell, even though we didn't have him for much of the season last year, and a second-round guy in Turk McBride. That will be a real challenge for us as we start fall camp."

Whereas the Vols are a bit unsettled at tackle, they are solid at end. In addition to starters Mitchell and Reynolds, they have proven backups in Robert Ayers and Wes Brown.

"At defensive end I'm really encouraged about the progress they've made overall," Fulmer said. "Xavier Mitchell and Antonio Reynolds during the course of spring practice showed they're capable of playing at the level you need in the Southeastern Conference. In the defensive front, if our tackles can come through, I think we'll be where we need to be."

The linebacker corps, meanwhile, may be the strongest area of the team. Mayo is an All-SEC caliber player. Karl returns after starting every game on the strong side in 2006. McCoy has tremendous potential and heads into preseason drills No. 1 on the weak side. There's also quality depth in Ellix Wilson, Dorian Davis and Adam Myers-White.

"John Chavis has done a great job coaching the linebackers," Fulmer noted. "Jerod Mayo kind of leads the group there that I'm pretty darned excited about ... not only the first three guys but also some young guys and the depth we can potentially have at linebacker."


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