Vol position analysis: DEs

This is the sixth in a series of articles comparing Tennessee's 2009 talent at each position with its 2008 talent at the same position. Today's topic: Defensive ends.

Tennessee will have a dramatically different look at defensive end in 2009. One of last fall's starters (Robert Ayers) has joined the pro ranks after being a first-round NFL Draft pick. The other (Wes Brown) has joined the Vols' tackle ranks after a mid-spring conversion.

Minus both 2008 starters, Tennessee's defensive end rotation would seem to be seriously weakened. That may not be the case, however. Junior successors Chris Walker and Ben Martin may fall short of their predecessors as run stoppers but Walker and Martin should be much better pass rushers.

Ayers (3.0) and Brown (2.5) combined for a mere 5.5 sacks last fall. Walker (3.0) and Martin (1.0) combined for nearly as many, despite playing perhaps one-fourth as many snaps.

Moreover, Walker's pass-rush skills improved noticeably during spring practice. He harassed Vol quarterbacks with such regularity that head coach Lane Kiffin termed him "unblockable." Walkers' knack for sacks and hurries also earned him the Andy Spiva Award as UT's most improved defensive player.

Martin, a Parade All-American during his high school days back in Cincinnati, shows signs of scratching his enormous potential, as well. His spring performances weren't as eye-catching as Walker's, but they were impressive nonetheless.

The critical question concerning Walker (6-3, 232) and Martin (6-3, 239) is how well they can hold their ground against opponents who run right at them. Both performed well vs. the run in spring practice but they were facing undersized and inexperienced offensive tackles for the most part. Fortunately for them, they won't have to face Alabama's Andre Smith and Ole Miss' Michael Oher, both of whom finished up their eligibility last fall.

Whereas Walker and Martin provided outstanding depth behind the starters last fall, the depth behind them this fall is somewhat suspect.

After two ill-fated flings at linebacker, junior Gerald Williams (6-4, 248 junior) is nowhere near being the force his ability suggests he should be. As a result, he finished spring practice listed third-team at left end behind Martin and redshirt freshman Willie Bohannon (6-2, 230).

Another redshirt freshman, Steven Fowlkes is the No. 2 right end behind Walker. At 6-4 and 229 pounds, however, Fowlkes may be a liability against the run. Conversely, lack of heft will not be a problem for junior college transfer Rae Sykes (6-2, 255), listed No. 3 at right end.

Unless Williams begins tapping his potential, there's a good chance that Wes Brown will have to play a backup role at end, in addition to starting at tackle. That's not an ideal situation but the Vols may have no choice.

Using my usual scale of Plus-2 (significantly stronger), Plus-1 (somewhat stronger), 0 (about the same), Minus-1 (somewhat weaker) and Minus-2 (significantly weaker), I'm giving the defensive end spot a Minus-1. There are just too many concerns regarding run support and depth.

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