True grit

Victor Thomas did very little to earn the confidence of Tennessee football fans in his first three years as a Vol but there's no doubting Thomas these days.

The 6-4, 286-pounder from Olive Branch, Miss., started at defensive tackle in last Saturday's scrimmage and got most of the practice reps with the first-team defense Monday and Tuesday. His reaction?

"I enjoyed it," he said, "and I hope to get a lot more."

Victor Thomas' sudden emergence as a potential contributor qualifies as one of the more shocking developments of preseason camp. He redshirted in 2006, saw two games of mop-up duty in 2007 and got seven mop-up assignments in 2008.

With senior Wes Brown slowed by sore knees, however, Thomas and senior Dan Williams are the first-team tackles these days. Also vying for playing time at tackle are freshmen Montori Hughes, Arthur Jeffery and Marlon Walls, juniors Chase Nelson and Rae Sykes, along with senior Andre Mathis.

"It's been a lot of competition," Thomas said, "and competition always helps."

Clearly a man of few words, he used just three when asked what he must do to retain his first-team status: "Be more consistent."

After three years as practice fodder, Thomas is fully enjoying the opportunity to compete for a starting position.

"It's a lot of fun," he said. "It makes practice fun. When you're having fun, it makes practice go by faster."

Thomas finished spring practice listed No. 3 at left tackle on the depth chart behind Brown and Hughes. He made progress in several areas since then, however, that has enabled him to catch the eye of UT coaches.

"I got a lot more consistent and I got my stamina up," he said. "I wouldn't say it was a problem before but it's always better to be more in shape."

Brown will be starting when he's healthy but chronic knee problems are sure to limit his snaps this fall. That means his backup is going to be a key figure in Tennessee's plans.

"I know the importance," Thomas said. "If he goes down I need to be ready to go in at any time."

Like Brown, Thomas isn't flashy. He relies on determination and effort to do the job.

"I feel like I bring just a lot of grit," he said. "I can do the dirty work. I can get in and do pretty much anything the coaches need me to."

Although Tennessee's defensive line is viewed as suspect heading into the 2009 season, Thomas believes fans will be pleasantly surprised.

"I think we're going to be real good," he said. "I see us being the best unit on the field."

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