D-line will be fine

Hearing Tennessee coaches and fans singing the blues regarding the outlook at defensive tackle amuses J.T. Mapu. He's heard these lyrics before.

"Every season since I've been at UT, the D-tackles have needed to prove something," he said, grinning broadly.

He has a point. When he arrived as a freshman in 2002 fans were bemoaning the loss of first-round NFL Draft picks John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth. When he was a sophomore in 2003 the Vols faced the challenge of finding successors to Rashad Moore and Aubrayo Franklin.

After two years on a Mormon mission, Mapu returned to UT last fall to hear a chorus of moaning and groaning about the loss of 2005 All-America tackle Jesse Mahelona. This year the mournful refrain concerns the departure of 2006 starters Justin Harrell and Turk McBride.

J.T. Mapu believes fans can stop wailing and gnashing their teeth. He's convinced the defensive tackle play in 2007 is going to be just fine.

"We've got a great coach, Coach (Dan) Brooks, and he always puts us in a situation to where we can succeed," Mapu said. "There is a lot of pressure on our defensive tackles right now – that's a key point in our defense – but I feel like we've got a great bunch of guys who can get the job done."

Brightening the outlook at tackle is the fact Tennessee has maturity and experience at end. Seniors Xavier Mitchell and Antonio Reynolds are returning starters. Junior Robert Ayers and sophomore Wes Brown saw considerable action as backups in 2006. Those guys can help the tackles a bit.

"We're working together as a line," Mapu noted, "and that's probably the biggest thing."

Another plus: Tennessee's defensive tackles aren't asked to make a dozen tackles per game. Their primary job is (1) clogging the middle, freeing the linebackers to make plays and (2) generating enough pass rush to take some heat off the secondary.

"Definitely," Mapu said. "That's always the key for the defensive line – to take pressure off the secondary and the linebackers. We look forward to doing that."

Like Mapu, the afore-mentioned Mitchell thinks Tennessee's defensive front is going to be stronger than last year, when the Vols recorded just 17 sacks (fewest since 1988) and surrendered 1,907 rushing yards (most since 1990).

"I'm excited about it," he said. "We were disappointed as a unit about the amount of sacks and pressures we got last year, so I'm looking forward to getting out there and showing the improvement we've made from last year to this year."

As for Tennessee's much-maligned tackles, Mitchell predicts they will surprise fans this fall.

"J.T. Mapu is going to do a great job inside; I have no doubt about it," Mitchell said. "Demonte (Bolden) is coming along and so is Dan (Williams). And we've got a lot of backups that can play. We're ready to go out there and show our improvement."

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