Wanted: tenacious tackles

Ideally, Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis likes to have six dependable tackles he can rotate. Last season was far from ideal.

Chavis didn't have six dependable tackles in 2007. In fact, he didn't have four. Some would argue that he didn't even have two.

When the tackles play poorly, the ends get double-teamed, the linebackers get blocked and the defensive backs get exploited. The result: You rank 11th among the 12 SEC teams in total defense, 11th in pass defense, 11th in pass-efficiency defense, 11th in red-zone defense, 10th in scoring defense and ninth in rushing defense.

Certainly, Tennessee had more problems on defense last year than at tackle. Still, if the Vols' stop unit is to improve appreciably in 2008, the tackle play must improve appreciably. Returning starters Dan Williams and Demonte Bolden understand this. So does key reserve Walter Fisher. The question is: Do young tackles such as Chase Nelson, Victor Thomas and Donald Langley feel that same sense of urgency?

"I don't know that they fully understand it," Chavis said recently, "but that's my responsibility – to make sure they will. I can assure you that before spring practice is over they will."

Head coach Phillip Fulmer touched on the same theme, noting that "you've got another group of guys in Donald Langley, Chase Nelson and Victor Thomas that really have to understand what it takes to play in this league … learn to play full speed with great intensity and great effort, so they can be more consistent than they've been to this point."

Tennessee's staff is counting on the young tackles to make considerable progress this spring. If they don't, it won't be because they lacked opportunities.

"They're going to get a ton of work," Chavis said.

Unfortunately for the Vols, there isn't a John Henderson, an Albert Haynesworth or a Justin Harrell – three first-round NFL Draft picks – among the current crop of young tackles. There probably isn't a Darwin Walker or a Jesse Mahelona, either. Still, Chavis believes there's enough talent among the young tackles for Tennessee to field a quality front four in the fall.

"We've seen signs in practice," the coordinator said. "Even though they didn't play a lot, they got a bunch of reps in practice. We made sure of that last year. Now they're going to have the opportunity to step it up and see what they're going to be like in game situations. We'll have enough of that (game situations) in spring practice that we'll be able to measure that."

Chavis is hoping Bolden, Williams and Fisher can provide one key ingredient that will enable Nelson, Thomas and Langley to elevate their play.

"Leadership," the coordinator said. "We've got an opportunity to grow our leadership in the direction we want it to head. We've got some very, very fine young talent.

"The leadership and the guys that you can count on in the clutch are going to have to step forward. That's going to be a big part of spring practice, and it's a part I'm looking forward to."

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