The 3-4 threat

Phillip Fulmer's search for four dependable defensive linemen gets so frustrating sometimes that he's threatening to switch to Plan B.

"We'll go to a three-down scheme," he says, "before we play somebody that's not going to go out there and give you their best effort."

Tennessee has relied almost exclusively on a 4-3 alignment since John Chavis became defensive coordinator in 1995, so the 3-4 comment could be merely an idle threat on Fulmer's part. Then again, maybe not. The head coach says UT's young defensive linemen are not getting the job done at present.

"They need to learn to challenge themselves," he said following Tuesday's practice. "We can't be standing over them every play they're out there. They've got to challenge themselves to get in great condition.

"We played less than 30 (scrimmage) plays out there today, and you'd have thought we played two football games back to back, the way their eyes were and their demeanor was."

Tennessee has three defensive tackles with experience - Dan Williams, Demonte Bolden and Walter Fisher. Chase Nelson, Victor Thomas and Donald Langley are still learning what it takes to compete at the SEC level.

"They just don't understand," Fulmer said. "That goes back to the offseason program and the summer program. They've got to get in great shape and they've got to show their heart. That goes for a couple of guys on the offensive side, too."

As a former offensive lineman and offensive line coach, Fulmer likes practices that tax his team physically. Still, he has to balance their benefit against the possibility of injury. Two players were lost to knee injuries in last Saturday's scrimmage – linebacker Nevin McKenzie (for the spring with a sprain) and fullback David Holbert (probably for the year with a dislocation and ligament damage).

The dilemma is obvious: Does the head man put his team through a lot of full-contact work to make it tougher or does he limit the full-contact work to keep it healthier?

"The only way we're going to get better is to continue to play football and play as much 11-on-11 as we can," Fulmer said. "We still have that division of guys who have played and are productive, and the guys who are learning to play."

Unfortunately for Tennessee, a lot of the guys who are still "learning to play" are defensive tackles. That position must make great strides between now and September.

"It's not nearly where it needs to be at this point," Fulmer said, "but we're going to keep pushing and keep working to try to get those guys up to speed. I'm not displeased with the attitude at all, but I do know how short spring is and before we know it fall will be here."

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