Minus the top three tackles from the 2006 front line and three of four secondary starters from the 2006 back line, the Big Orange has little choice but to rely on its linebacking corps to carry the '07 defense ... especially in September, while the supporting cast matures a bit.
Fortunately for Tennessee, the first-team trio of Mayo, senior Ryan Karl and sophomore Rico McCoy has some experience. Karl started all 13 games last fall. Mayo started one game in 2005 and 11 in 2006. McCoy started two games last season while Mayo was injured.
The Vols also have two proven backups. Ellix Wilson registered 13 tackles and Adam Myers-White nine in reserve roles last fall. Whether the experience in the linebacking corps is sufficient to offset the inexperience in front of it and behind it remains to be seen, of course. Mayo believes the return of five veteran 'backers is a huge plus.
"I definitely think it helps a lot," he said. "Having Ryan Karl and Rico McCoy, and then having people like Ellix Wilson that come off the bench and contribute to this team is really key for this defense."
Karl calls the defensive signals and is the linebacking corps' best pass defender. He missed the first two weeks of preseason drills with a back problem but provided an unmistakable spark since rejoining the team. The Vols also have gotten a lift from freshman cornerback Eric Berry, who might be the best athlete on the team.
"I think this defense is coming along real well... having Ryan Karl back out there and having young guys like Eric Berry step up," Mayo said. "It really shows a lot about their character."
With the departure of 2006 middle linebacker Marvin Mitchell, Mayo is moving from the weak side to the middle. And, as one of the defense's few proven players, he is being counted on for more tackles and more leadership in '07. Still, Mayo insists his role won't change dramatically.
"I just try to be a playmaker," he said. "If I have to take the leadership role for this team I will, but I just want to make plays for the defense and for this team."
The Vols' first-team defense features seven seniors – Karl, safeties Jonathan Hefney and Jarod Parrish, ends Xavier Mitchell and Antonio Reynolds, tackle J.T. Mapu and cornerback Antonio Gaines – but that's a little misleading. Parrish has just one career start to his credit. Gaines has zero starts and has played mostly on special teams. Mapu is just one year removed from a two-year layoff to serve as a Mormon missionary.
The No. 1 defense also boasts two juniors, Mayo and tackle Demonte Bolden. Sophomore McCoy is set at Mayo's old weakside linebacker spot, with either sophomore Marsalous Johnson or freshman Eric Berry filling the remaining cornerback slot.
Although many of the 2007 defenders have limited college experience, Mayo is convinced the Vols will field an excellent stop unit this fall.
"It's going to be aggressive and play-making," he said. "We have young guys stepping up and making a lot of plays and you have old veterans like Ryan Karl stepping up and doing what he's supposed to do."