'You get the next guys ready'

In his latest projection, NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr., predicts that Jerod Mayo will be selected by the Tennessee Titans with pick No. 24 in Round 1 next month.

Having to replace a first-round draft pick who has eligibility remaining is a real challenge. Having to replace him AND a two-year starter from the same linebacker corps is a real bummer.

Welcome to John Chavis' world.

"Not only are we losing Mayo but we're losing a fine player in Ryan Karl," the Tennessee Vols' defensive coordinator said recently. "I don't think people really fully appreciate what he did for our football team ... even from a mental standpoint what he brought to our team (calling defensive signals, etc.)."

Saying goodbye to two-thirds of his first-team 'backer brigade is not a fun way to spend the spring but Chavis isn't crying in his beer.

"We're replacing two players that were big-time impact players on our team but we've done that before," the coordinator said. "You get the next guys ready."

So, who is the "next guy" now that Mayo is gone?

"Right now it's Ellix Wilson," Chavis said, "but there's going to be some competition there, and we'll see how it goes throughout spring practice."

A 5-10, 225-pounder, Wilson faces a tall order. He recorded 30 tackles last fall, which was precisely 110 fewer than Mayo's SEC-leading total of 140.

Wilson is battling sophomore Nick Reveiz, redshirt freshman Chris Donald and mid-term freshman Austin Johnson for supremacy in the middle. The competition figures to be spirited.

"If everybody on our team played with the intensity and effort that Nick Reveiz does, then we'll have a fine football team," head coach Phillip Fulmer said.

Whereas Reveiz arrived at UT as an unheralded walk-on, Donald showed up with five stars next to his name. The 6-1, 225-pounder did not live up to the hype last fall, however, struggling so much at linebacker that he spent most of his redshirt season at defensive end.

"Chris Donald is kind of a mystery right now," Fulmer said. "We've tried him at a couple of different spots, and we've moved him back to Mike (middle) linebacker. This will be a very important spring for him … that he kind of comes out of the shell and becomes the player we and he would like for him to be."

Johnson, a 6-2, 242-pounder, isn't especially fast but has tremendous instincts. That's how he was able to record a mind-boggling 580 career tackles in high school, including 421 his last two seasons.

"Austin Johnson is a guy we're pretty darned excited about," Fulmer said. "Austin comes from a very fine program (Hickory High) that competed for the (North Carolina) state championship. He has shown in the offseason he knows how to practice and work. It will be an interesting spring for him."

While the search for Mayo's successor is getting a lot of attention, the search for Karl's successor is just as significant. Seniors Nevin McKenzie and Adam Myers-White – both listed 6-2 and 215 pounds – are bracketed No. 1 at Karl's old strongside spot.

"Replacing Ryan Karl and Jerod Mayo is going to be a tremendous challenge for those guys," Fulmer conceded.

The only returning starter in Tennessee's linebacker corps is Rico McCoy. The 6-1, 215-pound junior had a solid year at weakside linebacker in 2007 and should be a force in '08. He will be backed by sophomores Savion Frazier (6-2, 210) and LaMarcus Thompson (6-1, 220).

Frazier looked awfully good in preseason scrimmages last August, prompting Fulmer to note: "I'm excited about Savion Frazier and his prospects to be a really good player."

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