Where's the beef?

Tennessee muddled through the 2008 football season with three defensive tackles getting virtually all of the snaps. This spring three adequate D-tackles would seem like a luxury.

Now that two-year starter Demonte Bolden and part-time starter Walter Fisher have exhausted their eligibility, defensive tackle is the thinnest position on the Big Orange roster. Still, line coach Ed Orgeron will be happy if he can find three tackles and three ends for his rotation next fall.

"I like to rotate three guys inside, three guys outside," Orgeron said, "and play a fourth (at each spot) if you could."

Playing a fourth end should be no problem since Tennessee is loaded with talent at the position. Rising senior Wes Brown (6-4, 257) returns for another year as a starter. Rising juniors Chris Walker (6-3, 232) and Ben Martin (6-3, 239) are exceptional prospects. Junior college transfer Rae Sykes (6-2, 255) has excellent potential, as do redshirt freshmen Willie Bohannon (6-2, 230) and Steven Fowlkes (6-4, 229). And there's a good chance rising junior Gerald Williams (6-4, 248) will be moving from linebacker back to end by the time preseason drills begin in August.

"I think we're very, very talented at some spots," Orgeron said. "I'm excited about the athletic ability we have at end.

"At left end, there's Wes Brown, Chris Walker and Willie Bohannon. I think those guys are very athletic. At right end, we have Ben Martin, Steven Fowlkes and Rae Sykes. I think we have some speed, some good young ends. I'm excited to see their pass-rush ability."

Finding a fourth defensive tackle won't be nearly as simple as finding a fourth defensive end for the line rotation. Still, Orgeron is optimistic.

"In the middle we're a little thin but I think we have some really good players," he said. "Dan Williams is a veteran, a senior, and I'm looking forward to him having 15 great days of spring practice.

"The 3-technique tackle is wide open. We've got Andre Mathis (6-2, 280 senior), Donald Langley (6-2, 288 sophomore) and Chase Nelson (6-4, 292 junior). I look forward to watching those guys work ... also Victor Thomas (6-4, 286 junior) and Montori Hughes (6-4, 312 freshman)."

After holding three workouts last week, Tennessee began a 10-day spring break on Saturday. The Vols return to the practice field March 24, hold 11 more workouts, then stage the Orange & White Game on April 18. Orgeron can hardly wait to get going again.

"I'm looking forward to it," he said. "You see the guys improve vastly. They listen to everything you say. They're like sponges. They really believe in Monte's (defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's) system and what I've brought in. I think it's going to be fantastic."

Because the Vols are so unsettled at defensive tackle, Orgeron will be putting the candidates through rigorous drills to try and identify which ones he can count on in the season to come. Are they ready for such a taxing grind?

"If they're not," Orgeron said, "they're going to GET ready."


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