Peace hyped for first start

After dismal showings against Florida and Rutgers the past two weeks, the Tennessee Vols have a lot to prove tonight against Arkansas.

No Vol has more to prove than junior Robert Peace, who will be making his first career start at middle linebacker. Peace assumed the first-team job when Kevin Simon fractured an ankle last week against Rutgers, forcing starting MLB Keyon Whiteside to move to Simon's weakside linebacker spot.

''I'm excited, anxious, nervous. You name it, I feel it,'' Peace said, grinning broadly. ''I'm looking forward to the opportunity.''

Asked if he could recall his first start as a high school player, Peace nodded.

''It was my freshman year,'' he said. ''It kind of felt the same way. I was so nervous, being a freshman starting on the varsity, it was kind of the same way I feel now.''

The fact Tennessee is trying to bounce back after two sloppy efforts in a row makes the Arkansas game a pivotal one for the Big Orange. And that provides even more motivation for Peace to perform well.

''It definitely makes it special,'' he said. ''This is the week of my birthday, I have family ties to Arkansas and it's a chance to come out and play well for 60 minutes. If we can do that, it's going to make it a special victory.''

Asked what he brings to the UT defense, Peace replied: ''I think my ability to play within the tackles. I feel like within the tackles I'm as good as anybody on the team ... as good as anybody in the CONFERENCE. That's where I can help out the most.''

Peace was running first team at MLB in the spring until he suffered a shoulder injury. He now says he's ''about 90 percent'' recovered.

Tennessee had a glut of talented linebackers in August but losing Kevin Burnett to a Game 1 ACL injury and losing Simon to a Game 4 ankle injury has thinned the ranks considerably. Still, Peace says there's plenty of talent and experience in the 'backer brigade.

''We know it hurts us depthwise, but we also know we have two seniors and a junior in the starting lineup now, and all three of us have a lot of game experience and have played a lot of football here,'' Peace said, referring to himself, plus seniors Whiteside and Eddie Moore. ''We're very confident. But when you get past us, you have to start playing young guys who don't have the experience we have. That's where the question marks come in.''

Because UT must rely on ''younger guys'' for depth at linebacker, Peace, Whiteside and Moore are working with the novices to help get them ready.

''We definitely have to help them, coach 'em up, do everything we can to get them ready,'' he said. ''They're definitely going to have to be ready quicker than they were expecting to.''

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