Where are the linebackers?

The Vol football program boasts three of the finest linebackers in the South but you'd never know it from watching spring practice. All three of the projected starters -- Robert Peace (foot), Kevin Burnett (knee) and Kevin Simon (ankle) -- are sidelined by injuries suffered last season.

If there is a silver lining to this, it is that defensive coordinator John Chavis already knows what Peace, Burnett and Simon are capable of, since all three are relatively proven players.

''You have a good idea what they can do,'' the coordinator said.

Still, the three missing 'backers have yet to prove their durability. Peace has started just five games in three years due to an assortment of injuries. Burnett has just three starts in three years, thanks to a torn ACL that caused him to miss the last 11 games of 2002. Simon missed the 2001 season with a knee injury, then fractured an ankle after starting three games in 2002.

''The thing you get real concerned about with Kevin (Burnett) is the amount of football he's played,'' Chavis said. ''Obviously, he's a very, very talented guy and he's got a great future ahead of him if he can stay healthy.

''Kevin Simon has played very little football here, so, again, you're talking about experience. There are some things you just can't go out and get taught. You have to experience those things, work through them. You get a little concerned about that. We feel very good about the talent. It's just the amount of experience that is a concern.''

If he doesn't win the starting job at strongside linebacker, Simon could push Peace for the MLB job. He has the speed and strength to play both positions, and he has proven himself to be a playmaker.

''He only started three games last year, yet he finished 13th or 14th on the tackle chart,'' Chavis noted. ''His presence was felt when he was out there.''

With Peace, Burnett and Simon sidelined this spring, backups Jon Poe, Jason Mitchell, Marvin Mitchell, Omar Gaither and Corey Anderson are getting a ton of work in practice. That should bolster UT's depth heading into the 2003 season.

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