UT's D-line: A Work In Progress

Tennessee's D-line is a G-line, that's G as in Green, as in not yet ripe, lacking in SEC experience or in other words: A far cry from the not too distance days when John Henderson, Darwin Walker, Sean Ellis, Will Overstreet, Albert Haynesworth, Billy Ratliff, Rashad Moore, Constantin Ritzmann and Bernard Jackson ruled the trenches on the 1999 team.

Neither will it be confused with the 1995 UT D-line that featured defensive ends Leonard Little, Steve White and tackle Shane Burton, a talented threesome still gainfully employed in the NFL. It won't resemble the 1991 defensive front that squeezed tougher-than-two-dollar-steak-tackle tandem — Shazzon Bradley and J.J. Surlas — between a remarkable rotation of cat-quick defensive ends that included: Chuck Smith, Chris Mimms, Todd Kelly, James Wilson and Horace Morris.

No, the candidates for significant playing time in 2003 have a total of eight years SEC experience and only 11 games as starters. Nearly half of that seasoning is provided by one player, Constantine Ritzmann, a three-year letterman who is still recovering from knee surgery that knocked him out of action the week before last season's opener, setting the tone for injuries that plagued the Vols throughout the fall.

The other half of the experience equation comes from Parys Harrelson, Jonathan Mapu and Greg Jones who all earned playing time last season as true freshmen.

Redshirt junior Karlton Neal earned significant experience as a part-time starter last season and displayed excellent potential. Then there's junior college transfer Mondre Dickerson who didn't exactly distinguish himself in action during 2002.

A linebacker at Jonesboro High School in Arkansas, Jones is the leading candidate to earn a starting job at defensive tackle despite the fact he never played the down position before he got to Tennessee. Likewise, Harrelson rates right behind Ritzmann despite never playing defensive end until last season.

Four other contenders on the defensive front include redshirt freshmen Justin Harrell, LaRon Harris, Jason Hall and David Ligon. Joining the competition this fall will be junior college run stopper Zarnell Fitch along with true freshmen Anthony McDaniel and high school all-American end Turk McBride.

"We're just really young, very inexperienced," said Tennessee defensive line coach Dan Brooks. "A long ways from where we were this time last year. Last year we had some guys that had played. This year we are just very young and inexperienced. It's a challenge."

Call it Job One on a UT team that is being retooled to contend for an SEC title. It's the second year Brooks has had to replace all four starters in the defensive front, but last season at this time he at least had proven talent in Moore, Ritzman, Demetrin Veal, Edward Kendrick and Aubrayo Franklin.

"The good part is that you don't have to play right now," said Brooks of the daunting challenge. "They are not ready for that by any means. They know there is a challenge out there and that there are jobs to be had. They have to challenge themselves to get better everyday and go out and see where we are at."

Tennessee's shortage of experienced hands won't alter an aggressive attacking style of play that requires numbers to enforce its will on opponents.

"I'm not gonna change just because of what we are," Brooks said. "We like to have five people ready to play inside and five ready to play outside. That's where we are right now. We'll find the best ten out of this group whoever they are. Whether it's a guy coming in that will fit in that five, we'll see, but we will find five to play with."

Fitch fits the classic mode of a gap-plugging tackle capable of occupying offensive linemen and freeing up Tennessee linebackers to disrupt and destroy. His experience in the junior college ranks and maturity should also enable him to compete for playing time despite not being a midterm graduate.

"The biggest thing is you think a junior college guy will be ready to play because he is older and more mature," Brooks allowed. "We'd like for him (Fitch) to be able to come in and help us, but you really don't know until he gets here. How fast can he learn the scheme and what he's doing. You'd like to get the JCs in here early but you also want to be able to count on the upper classmen going into the summer."

Although being something of a disappointment last season, Dickerson is showing signs of being ready to assume a more prominent role this spring. There is no doubt he has the physical talent to make a difference next season if he can continue to build on a successful offseason.

"We are looking for consistency out of Mondre," said Brooks. "He worked hard in the offseason. He is stronger and that sort of thing. He's buying into what we want him to be. We are just looking for consistency day-to-day in his work habits and what he is doing."

With no less than 14 contenders for playing time next fall including incoming signees as well as veteran holdovers like Terreia Smalls and Andre Taylor, there will be no lack of numbers, competition or talent on the defensive line.

Unfortunately, experience can only come through the crucible of competition in the trenches of the SEC.

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