Depleted Tennessee looking for worthy defensive linemen among inexperienced players

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Tennessee coach Derek Dooley is looking for some tackles and ends to fill vacancies on his defensive line. But he's finding the guys competing for the jobs aren't very distinguishable from one another.

"You just shake them up and pull one out and throw another one in," Dooley said.

Gone are tackles Dan Williams and Wes Brown. Sophomore tackle Marlon Walls and senior end Ben Martin recently suffered Achilles' tendon injuries, and tackle John Brown couldn't qualify academically after transferring from a junior college.

"I think we get the point," junior defensive end Malik Jackson said. "They expect more from us."

The biggest problem is at tackle, where only sophomore Montori Hughes has any significant experience. Hughes made 20 tackles in 13 games as a backup in 2009. The others are either undersized or inexperienced.

Perhaps the only things that distinguishes the rest of the tackles are the twisted paths that has given each one a chance to compete for a starting role.

Junior Rae Sykes and sophomore Steven Fowlkes have moved from end to tackle, but at 270 pounds and 253 pounds respectively, both are a bit undersized for tackles. Senior Victor Thomas spent the spring trying to bolster the depth on the offensive line but is back at defensive tackle, where he sat for three seasons with very little opportunity to play.

Senior Minor Bowens was a member of the practice squad last year while competing as a discus thrower for the track team and is now competing for a prime spot in the rotation. So is redshirt freshman Arthur Jeffery, who hasn't played for the past two years because of an ACL injury.

So far none of them have impressed.

"We've got to go out there and compete to our highest potential," Sykes said. "We've got to give more effort and more competitiveness. We need to work on taking on the double teams and having relentless effort."

Defensive line coach Chuck Smith said he's teaching the inexperienced tackles how to run right at the offensive coverage, how to turn their hips and change direction and how to use their hands and leverage to tackle. With a lot of work, they'll be ready to play, he said.

"We're working them and improving them everyday and we need to start taking some giant steps," he said. "They've made some small steps, but I'm waiting for one of them to truly step out and take that giant step."

The defensive end spot might hold up if no other players suffer injuries.

There's senior Chris Walker, who is a preseason second team all-Southeastern Conference pick after having 43 tackles, six sacks and two interceptions in 12 starts last season. Senior Gerald Williams had 15 tackles mostly as a backup last season.

Sophomore Willie Bohannon has plenty of experience as Walker's backup, and Jackson is expected to contribute after recording 18 tackles at Southern California last year.

Even with the experience at end, Dooley has been clear that he expects more out of his entire defensive line.

"They need to be productive and disruptive, and take on blocks the right way, be in gaps the right way, play with great mental intensity," he said.