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Strong showing by backups creates more uncertainty on defensive lineup

April 4th, 2007 9:45 pm by JOHN MOOREHOUSE



KNOXVILLE - With depth at defensive tackle a continuing issue and some simmering battles for starting jobs, Tennessee's defense arguably left the Orange and White game with more questions than it had when spring drills began.


What is this, an episode of "Lost"?


While coach Phillip Fulmer said it was a "productive" spring, there's still a long way to go before the starting lineup for the Sept. 1 season opener against California can be hashed out.


"It's always difficult when you start trying to replace first-rounders or first-day draftable guys, or fifth-year seniors who have played very well for you," Fulmer said. "That's everybody's challenge every year."


Yet even some of the Volunteers who are returning starters don't have a firm grasp on their positions.


Ryan Karl, the incumbent at strong-side linebacker, is now receiving a fierce challenge from Adam Myers-White, who "closed the gap considerably" on the starter, Fulmer said. Karl spent the spring working on improving his tackling fundamentals.


Another returning linebacker, Jerod Mayo, was held out of contact for the spring due to knee soreness. Mayo started in 2006 at weak-side linebacker but is moving to the middle, where Ellix Wilson impressed.


Barring injury, the contest at weak-side linebacker appears to be over.


"Rico McCoy established himself pretty well at weak-side linebacker," Fulmer said. "He's a guy that just kept showing up making plays."


Although Tennessee recorded a disappointing 17 sacks in 2006, the Vols seem to think those numbers will improve. Ends Xavier Mitchell and Antonio Reynolds, both returning starters, were among the chief standouts of spring drills.


"That's two seniors who have played a lot of football for us but we needed their example," Fulmer said.


The outlook is anything but clear at defensive tackle, where Justin Harrell, Turk McBride and Matt McGlothlin all are gone. After nearly a full calendar year back in the program, J.T. Mapu finally has rounded into the form he displayed prior to his two-year Mormon mission - although he played sparingly in Saturday's spring game.


Demonte Bolden and Dan Williams are jockeying for the other starting job, and Fulmer said there was "a little bit better situation" at that position than the Vols had to start the spring.


Some of the developments in the defensive backfield have been a pleasant surprise. Tennessee entered the spring needing to replace four starters: cornerbacks Jonathan Wade and Antwan Stewart, both seniors; safety Demetrice Morley, who flunked out; and cornerback Inky Johnson, who sustained a career-ending arm injury in the Vols' second game of the season.


Marsalous Johnson was impressive in the spring game. He and Antonio Gaines are the starting corners, a duo Fulmer dubbed the "Smurf Patrol" considering the 5-foot-9 height of each individual.


"The biggest thing for him is he had not competed consistently since he has been here," Fulmer said of Gaines.


Then there's safety Jonathan Hefney, expected to be a keystone to the defense in 2007. Hefney also is back as the punt returner, but didn't have many chances last Saturday and actually muffed one punt for an 11-yard loss.


"I don't know if there's anybody I'd trade Jon Hefney for in this conference," Fulmer said. "He and Jarod Parrish made a nice pair this spring."


The outlook in the secondary may change dramatically this summer, when highly touted freshman Eric Berry arrives, along with junior college prospects Nevin McKenzie and DeAngelo Willingham.


"We really won't know in the secondary until all those guys get here," Fulmer said. "It's going to create competition once we get to the fall, which we desperately need."


One guy with a leg up on the other newcomers - at least in terms of experience - is Art Evans. One of four 2007 signees who enrolled at UT in January, Evans made seven tackles during the spring game and had a near-miss on one of the big plays of the day. He had a clear route to an interception and easy return for a touchdown, but the ball bounced out of his hands.


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