UT front seven weak?

Tennessee has fielded a lot of quality front sevens through the years. The 2008 group may not be one of them.

Gone are both starting ends from 2007, Xavier Mitchell and Antonio Reynolds. First-team tackles Dan Williams and Demonte Bolden are back but neither has shown signs of being anything special. Moreover, the depth at both line positions is suspect at best.

The linebacking corps is nothing to write home about, either. The premature departure of first-round NFL Draft pick Jerod Mayo, who had a year of eligibility remaining had he chosen to use it, is potentially devastating. The exodus of strongside linebacker Ryan Karl, who called UT's defensive signals in 2006 and '07, will be felt, too.

A glance at the depth chart says this could be Tennessee's weakest front seven of the John Chavis era as coordinator. But Rico McCoy says no ... emphatically. Those sports writers who suggest otherwise, he adds, are simply providing extra incentive for the Vols.

"I think it's good that they write us up that way," he said. "It's motivation."

It's also malarkey, he believes.

"I think the front seven could be stronger than last season," McCoy said. "We ended up very well the second half of the season last year. The D-linemen played their best ball the last three or four games of the season. Those guys are mature. They're grown men now. "

Actually, the front seven was very erratic near the end of the 2007 season. After limiting Arkansas to 289 yards of total offense and Vanderbilt to 270 in Games 10 and 11, Tennessee was shredded for 564 yards by Kentucky and 464 by LSU in the SEC Championship Game. Vol defenders rallied a bit in the Outback Bowl, limiting Wisconsin to 347 total yards.

Given how ineffective Tennessee's front four was at stopping the run and rushing the passer in 2007, most observers peg the defensive line as the Vols' most glaring weakness for '08.

"Everybody's putting it on the line, man," McCoy said, shaking his head. "We have a lot of D-linemen working hard – not just the starters, the guys who have played ball – but the guys who haven't. The guys who haven't hit the field yet are trying to get there real fast. They're impressive."

Although McCoy is the only returning starter at linebacker, he believes the Vols will be strong in this area, as well. The obvious key is how well career backup Ellix Wilson can replace Mayo in the middle.

"I have no doubts in my mind," McCoy said. "Ellix Wilson has been here four years now. I've seen him play and practice, and when he got in games he made plays."

The task of replacing Karl on the strong side remains up for grabs between seniors Nevin McKenzie and Adam Myers-White, a pair of converted safeties.

"Nevin McKenzie and Adam Myers-White ... come on, we've got guys that can play," McCoy said, grinning broadly. "I'm not worried about it at all."

Perhaps he should be, though. Tennessee happens to be in the same division (SEC East) with two teams (Georgia and Florida) who should contend for the 2008 national championship. As a result, no one is projecting the Vols to repeat as East champs.

"It's cool," McCoy said, flashing another big grin. "Let's play football. Let's play football, THEN let me see what you say after we play these games. Give me your critique AFTER the game."

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