When Ed Orgeron was the head coach at Mississippi, his program was one of the many in pursuit of Chris Walker.
Then a highly-touted linebacker, Walker has transformed into a play-making defensive end for Tennessee. And Orgeron is now his position coach.
Star safety Eric Berry gets all the headlines — justifiably so — but Walker could be poised to be the next great defensive standout for the Volunteers.
To hear some of the coaches on Lane Kiffin’s staff talk, the 6-foot-3, 232-pound junior is already there. Walker earned the most improved award for a defensive player during spring practice. After one workout, Kiffin dubbed the Memphis native “unblockable.”
“A little bit of mistake, he makes you pay,” offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said regarding Walker at the end of spring drills. “To me, that’s how you define good football players. If we make a mistake on him, he makes the play. You cannot make mistakes when you play against him.”
Walker is poised for a starting spot in 2009 opposite returning starter Ben Martin. A five-star prospect who signed with Walker in the celebrated 2007 class, Martin (6-3, 239) has the speed and leaping ability to make big plays coming off the edge.
Wes Brown started every game at end for the Vols last season, despite painful knee problems that necessitated a meniscus repair surgery in December and arthroscopic operations on both knees this spring. In Monte Kiffin’s defense, though, Brown (6-4, 257) is projected to be a starter at tackle — though he always could return to his former position if needed.
Senior Dan Williams, a returning starter at tackle, projects as the first-team nose guard in the elder Kiffin’s scheme. At the end of spring practice, Monte Kiffin said Williams (6-3, 327) had dropped 25 pounds since the coaching change took place. Williams has gained about half that weight back, based on the total listed in this year’s media guide.
Given Brown’s history of knee problems, depth remains vital at defensive tackle. Freshman Montori Hughes (6-4, 312) made his case for playing time during a standout spring. Hughes originally signed with the Vols a year ago but failed to qualify academically. He enrolled early at UT for spring practice.
Fifth-year senior Andre Mathis (6-2, 280) came to Tennessee as part of the ballyhooed but disappointing 2005 class. Mathis made the position shift to end, then to tackle last season, but still hasn’t seen much playing time.
Injuries have disrupted all or part of the past two seasons for junior Chase Nelson (6-4, 292). Redshirt junior Victor Thomas (6-4, 286) has yet to make a significant contribution. He played in seven games last year without recording a tackle.
Gerald Williams (6-4, 248), a fourth-year junior, first committed to Tennessee in 2005 and finally made it last year after prolonged wrangling with the NCAA Clearinghouse. A natural linebacker, Williams made the move to defensive end and played in every game last season to varying results.
Redshirt freshmen Willie Bohannon (6-2, 230) and Steven Fowlkes (6-4, 229) also are fighting to crack the defensive end rotation. Fowles signed with UT as a wide receiver, but made the position switch to end last year. Bohannon could become a tenacious pass rusher; he tallied 44 total sacks in high school.
Rae Sykes (6-2, 255) originally committed to Tennessee in 2006 but had to go the junior college route. Injury sidelined him for both his juco seasons, and he enrolled early at UT for spring practice with three years of eligibility ahead of him.
The Vols recruited two defensive linemen as part of their 2009 class.
Arthur Jeffery (6-4, 285) tore his ACL and MCL in September, abruptly ending his high school career. Still, the Tennessee coaches liked what they saw in him. Lane Kiffin said Jeffery should be ready for the start of preseason practice Tuesday. At his size, he could contribute immediately at tackle.
Marlon Walls (6-2, 225) committed to Tennessee in 2007 but spent last year at Hargrave Military Academy. He established himself as one of Rivals.com’s top five prep school prospects.
How does the Vols’ defensive line measure up against the Southeastern Conference? John Moorehouse breaks it down on his “Orange Clockwork” blog at www.timesnews.net