Majors signed standout defensive ends (Mike Cofer, Kacy Rodgers, Chuck Smith, Chris Mims), standout linebackers (Carl Zander, Alvin Toles, Dale Jones, Keith DeLong. Earnest Fields, Darryl Hardy) and standout defensive backs (Terry McDaniel, Dale Carter, DeRon Jenkins).
The one area in which Majors struggled to sign top-notch players was defensive tackle. He got one great one (Reggie White) and one very good one (Mark Studaway). Otherwise, the D-tackle spots during the Majors era were manned by fellows like Chris Wampler, Robby Scott, Mark Hovanic, Carey Bailey, Jeff Tullis and J.J. Surlas ... guys with more heart than talent.
When Fulmer took the reins for good in 1993, the most obvious area of upgrade was defensive tackle. From the late '90s through the mid-2000s Tennessee had better tackles than just about anybody in college football – guys like Darwin Walker, John Henderson, Albert Haynesworth, Rashad Moore, Jesse Mahelona and Justin Harrell.
Given how significantly Fulmer upgraded Tennessee's tackle play, rating the tackles of the Fulmer era is no easy task. But that's the task I've undertaken. So here goes:
1. John Henderson (2000-01): At 6-6, this 300-pound Nashville was supposed to be too tall to play inside. Somehow he stayed low enough to be the Outland Trophy winner as a junior and an Outland finalist as a senior. After earning All-America honors in both '00 and '01, he was a first-round NFL Draft pick.
2. Justin Harrell (2004-05): A former tight end, Harrell's athleticism made him equally adept at stuffing the run and rushing the passer. He would've been a three-year starter except for a torn bicep muscle suffered in Game 2 of his senior year. Undaunted, he showed incredible heart by postponing surgery till he could face the Florida Gators once last time. Although he never earned so much as All-SEC recognition, he was a first-round NFL Draft pick in 2007.
3. Darwin Walker (1998-99): A transfer from North Carolina State, Walker earned All-SEC honors in both '98 and '99. A third-round NFL Draft pick, he has emerged as one of the league's better tackles.
4. Jesse Mahelona (2004-05): This junior college transfer earned All-SEC and All-America recognition as a Vol rookie in '04. The 6-0, 300-pound Hawaiian slipped a bit as a senior and lasted till Round 5 of the NFL Draft. He has bounced around in the pros and is currently unemployed.
5. Albert Haynesworth (2001): After two years as the poster child for underachieving, Big Al blossomed as a junior, combining with Henderson to give UT perhaps the greatest tackle tandem in SEC history. Haynesworth's one big year was so impressive that he was taken with the 15th pick in the 2002 NFL Draft, six picks behind Henderson. Haynesworth has developed into one of the top tackles in pro football.
6. Shane Bonham (1993): Inherited from the Majors era, Bonham was a transfer from Air Force whose determination made him a better player than his level of athleticism suggested he should be. That determination enabled him to be a third-round draft pick who would spend six years in the NFL.
7. Shane Burton (1995): Another signee from the Majors era, Burton spent some time at tight end before settling in full-time at defensive tackle. At 6-6, he had an uncanny knack for batting down passes. That knacked helped him become a fifth-round draft pick who spent eight years in the NFL.
8. Turk McBride (2006): At 280 pounds, this "tweener" was quick enough to play end and hefty enough to play tackle for the Vols. Forced to play exclusively at tackle following Harrell's bicep injury in Game 2 of '06, McBride "filled in" so well that he earned All-SEC honors and was taken in Round 2 of the NFL Draft.
9. Rashad Moore (2002): Stuck behind Henderson and Haynesworth, Moore finally got his chance to shine as a senior. He took advantage of the opportunity well enough to be a sixth-round draft pick. He is still playing in the NFL.
10. Aubrayo Franklin (2002): A linebacker in high school, he bulked up in junior college and teamed with Moore to give Tennessee a first-rate tackle tandem in '02. Taken in Round 5 of the '03 NFL Draft, he is still playing pro ball.
11. Bill Duff (1996-97): Born on Pluto and reared in New Jersey, Duff's eccentric personality partially obscured what a quality player he was. He'll always be known for the goal-line stop of Heisman winner Eddie George that sealed Tennessee's 20-14 upset of Ohio State in the 1996 Citrus Bowl game. Signed as a free agent, Duff spent one year with the Cleveland Browns and two years in NFL Europe. He also did some pro wrestling. Go figure.
Other starting tackles of the Fulmer era include:
- J.T. Mapu (2003): He deserves respect for putting faith ahead of football but he was never the player after his two-year Mormon mission that he had been as a freshman and sophomore.
- Mondre Dickerson (2003): He backed up some outstanding tackles – Henderson, Haynesworth, Moore and Franklin before finally getting to start as a senior.
- Jeff Coleman (1998): A converted end, he made up for a lack of size with excellent toughness and technique.
- Billy Ratliff (1999): A converted linebacker, Ratliff might've been special if not for a rash of injuries. He will always be known for causing the Clint Stoerner fumble that enabled Tennessee to come back from the dead in the final two minutes and beat Arkansas en route to the '98 national title.
- Ron Green (1996-97): After starting for two years, he lost his first-team job to Darwin Walker but still contributed to UT's 1998 national title.
- Edward Kendrick (2000): A converted tight end, he was a very serviceable tackle who started ahead of Albert Haynesworth as a junior.
- Billy Beron (1995): A heralded signee out of Louisiana, Beron's career was waylaid by injuries. He finally started as a senior.
- Matt McGlothlin (2006): It's rare when a 6-0, 300-pound walk-on earns a scholarship, even rarer when he earns a starting job. McGlothlin's toughness against the run enabled him to do both.
- Paul Yatkowski (1993): A holdover from the Majors era, he was a solid player who went on to spend four years in the Canadian Football League.
- Cory Stone (1994): Another holdover from the Majors era, he was typical of the tackles Tennessee fielded during the early '90s.
- Leland Taylor (1994): See Cory Stone.