Man in the middle

When your defensive scheme is designed to funnel everything toward the middle of the field, you'd better have a sure-handed tackler in the middle of the field.

Tennessee had one last year in Jerod Mayo, who missed a game due to injury but still led the entire Southeastern Conference with 140 tackles. Now that Mayo has elected to bypass his senior year and turn pro, the middle linebacker role falls to senior Ellix Wilson. At 5-10 and 225 pounds, the Memphis native bears little resemblance to the 6-2, 230-pound Mayo, but Wilson appears capable of being a solid player in his own right.

"Ellix had his best scrimmage since he's been here last week," head coach Phillip Fulmer said. "He had great pad leverage and tackled well. He played like a senior's supposed to play."

Wilson showed flashes of potential in 2007. He came off the bench to record 4 tackles and a sack in Game 4 vs. Arkansas State, then recorded a pass breakup and a blocked punt in Game 5 at Georgia. He contributed 6 tackles in Game 9 against Louisiana-Lafayette, then added 4 more in Game 10 at Alabama. With Mayo sidelined, Wilson made his first career start in the Outback Bowl outing vs. Wisconsin and responded with another 6-tackle effort.

"You like to have guys that have played, and he's done that for us at several positions," defensive coordinator John Chavis said. "It was good for him to get that start (vs. Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl) and he played a good part of the SEC Championship Game at outside linebacker. We lost our first- and second-team guys in the first half of the Championship Game. He came in the second half and did a great job for us outside."

Despite starting just one game last season, Wilson finished second among all Vol defenders last year in sacks (3) and sixth in tackles for loss (5). He also recorded a quarterback hurry.

Now that he's the "man in the middle" of Tennessee's defense, Wilson needs to become a leader in the tackle chart and in the huddle. There is no more important position in the Vols' defensive scheme.

"He's making progress but he's got a ways to go," Chavis said. "We need him to be a leader for us. He can be a factor. He can be an outstanding player for us if he keeps going in the right direction, and I think he can get that done."

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