Rae of hope

Tennessee entered this weekend needing Rae Sykes to establish himself as the No. 3 defensive tackle behind projected starters Montori Hughes and Marlon Walls. Now it may need him to establish himself as the No. 2 tackle.

With Walls' availability clouded by an undisclosed Achilles injury, Rae Sykes suddenly looms as one of the most important players on the Vol stop unit. Someone must fill the D-tackle spot opposite Hughes, and Sykes appears to be the leading candidate to do so.

The obvious question: Can a guy whose only contribution to date was a few snaps of mop-up duty in the 2009 opener vs. Western Kentucky suddenly fill a key role in the front four? He thinks so.

"I've been waiting on this since I committed (in 2007)," Sykes said this week. "I had to take a little detour (junior college), so I'm glad my chance has finally come around. It's not set in stone as far as the depth chart, so I'm going to work my hardest to get in that No. 1 rotation."

A three-time first-team all-state pick at Alcoa High School, Sykes spent two years at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College to get his academics in order before enrolling at Tennessee. He reported to Knoxville in January of 2009 as a defensive end but quickly found himself moved inside and told to gain weight.

"When I came in I was 260," he recalled. "Now I'm 275 and I'm trying to gain another 10 pounds. The weight helped a lot - just to hold my position, stay planted against those 300-pound offensive linemen."

After playing end throughout high school and junior college, Sykes discovered that tackle is a different world.

"Defensive end is a straight-up pass rusher," he said. "If you have to take on a run play you can adjust to it. At tackle it's just banging all day long. You've got double-teams and people coming at you from different angles. Outside (at end) it's pretty much one on one."

Playing tackle at the major-college level requires plenty of technique. Fortunately for Sykes, he is learning it from an acknowledged master, Vol defensive line coach Chuck Smith.

"I've been working real hard, working on everything Chuck Smith tells me, try to come out here and use everything to my best potential," Sykes said. "He said I need to use my hands better, not drawing 'em in but extending them to the offensive player ... keeping a wide base ... not taking such long steps. I'm working on all of that."

Although small for a tackle at 6-2 and 275 pounds, he believes his mobility offsets his lack of ideal size.

"I like it better than defensive end once I put on the extra 10 pounds," he said. "I still have my speed and quickness, so I feel like I have an advantage on the inside."

In fact, Sykes believes all of Tennessee's defensive linemen have exceptional quickness, even the 6-4, 305-pound Hughes.

"Our big dog, Montori, is going to be real special," Sykes said. "As a unit I think we'll be very quick. We're working hard on stopping the run. Pass rushing is nothing to us, so I think we'll pretty good this season."

The Vols may be "pretty good" across the front four but they're pretty thin at defensive tackle. Sykes concedes as much.

"There's four or five of us," he said. "We condition really hard because know there's not a lot of depth on the inside, so we know what we've got to do."

What they've "got to do" is stay healthy and play a lot of snaps ... especially if Marlon Walls' injury is significant.

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