Patchwork position

The way things are going, every guy on Tennessee's football roster may get a shot at playing defensive tackle by midseason.

Defensive ends Rae Sykes and Steven Fowlkes switched to tackle last spring. When those moves failed to adequately bolster depth at the position, offensive linemen Minor Bowens and Victor Thomas moved to D-tackle this preseason.

As a result, defensive line coach Chuck Smith has a cast that consists of one natural tackle (Montori Hughes), two former ends (Sykes, Fowlkes), two former offensive linemen (Bowens, Thomas) and a redshirt freshman who is battling back from a torn ACL (Arthur Jeffery).

"A lot of the guys I have are not the traditional interior guys," Smith conceded, making perhaps the understatement of the year. "But we're working to improve them every day.

"We need them to start taking some giant steps. They've made small steps but I'm waiting for one of them to truly step out and take that giant step."

Hughes, a 6-4, 305-pound sophomore, has All-SEC talent but has not played up to it in preseason camp.

"Montori's coming along," Smith said. "He has to keep working, stay focused and understand that there's no one bigger than the team. You've got to make sure you can't get 15-yard penalties. He had a couple yesterday (in the intra-squad scrimmage).

"He's a great talent but you have to use it in the right area. Montori Hughes has an opportunity to be a good player.... His main thing is to just focus. Keep your eyes on the prize. Everyone has to do the same things, whether you're a young Reggie White or a young Montori Hughes."

Jeffery, a 6-3, 294-pounder, was a 4-star prospect in high school prior to tearing his ACL. After redshirting last fall, he's hoping to regain his pre-injury form. Vol coaches are hoping for that, too.

"He hasn't played in awhile," Smith said. "Usually, when you come back from an ACL it's a two-year process. He's improved. He's working hard. Now we've got to work on things like understanding how to strike and pad level. We're also teaching the guys to understand the game - how to play certain blocks and how to read the scheme.

"Time is on Arthur's side. He's a redshirt freshman. I think he'll be able to help us in the future. You hope he'll keep developing but he hasn't shown any signs of any problems coming back from his ACL."

Perhaps Jeffery will shed his rust and blossom. Perhaps Hughes will become the disruptive force he could be. Perhaps the transplanted ends and offensive linemen will take root and grow into solid D-tackles by the time Tennessee starts facing SEC opponents.

That would please Chuck Smith, who figures defensive tackle play can be distilled to one simple formula:

"You're either going to kick someone's butt or get your butt kicked."

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