Defensive tackle was a question mark coming into fall practice last year: Dan Williams was the only known factor, Wes Brown was a DE transplant with no knees, and everyone else was an unknown. Turned out Dan Williams was a first round NFL Draft pick, Wes Brown's knees survived, and freshman Montori Hughes became a solid third option, with 20 tackles and 2 TFLs.
Now Hughes must step into the star role and anchor the line...and after that, they're really all question marks for Chuck Smith to work with.
And of course, since the Bar Knoxville case remains open, the status of Hughes and Marlon Walls remains a little uncertain. In an already thin situation, two weeks ago there was genuine concern that Hughes (lawyered up) and Walls (indefinitely suspended) might both miss time, Chase Nelson (named a police report but reportedly wasn't even there) was on academic suspension, and if juco transfer John Brown didn't make his grades in summer school, the Vols could be looking at an enormous hole in the middle of their defense. Brown's eligibility won't be known until this semester ends, and every day that passes without charges in the Bar Knoxville case seems to make it more and more likely that no further disciplinary action will be taken. But even with all the bodies present and accounted for in the middle, Tennessee still has to find another quality starter and some form of reliable depth.
Walls is believed to be the best option to start next to Hughes in the Vols' four man front; although he only had two tackles last year, his three sacks in the Orange & White Game gave us reason for hope. If Hughes and Walls are both eligible and stay healthy (the key word for all of these guys this year), they'll have a chance to give the Vol defense real stability on the line for years, as both are only sophomores.
After that? John Brown carries the most hype as a four star juco transfer. Alcoa's Rae Sykes carried even more hype on signing day in February 2007 as a four star defensive end prospect, with offers from all the SEC heavyweights. But two injury-plauged years in junior college gave way to a move inside and an unproductive season at tackle last year. Opportunity will definitely be easier to come by at tackle this fall, however.
Also in the mix are Chase Nelson (if his academic situation gets resolved) and Arthur Jeffery, and Steven Fowlkes should also get a look inside with a crowded field at defensive end. Could the Vols move someone else over from end? One wonders about USC transfer Malik Jackson, but he was being used at SC as a third down pass rusher, so it may take even more time for him to learn not only a new system, but a new position if the move is made.
I think Montori Hughes has a chance to be special at this university - back in the spring Justin Wilcox was even experimenting with him dropping back into coverage some. If the Vols get everyone here cleared to play, they need one of these guys to step up and become a reliable option next to Hughes...and then the Vols have to stay healthy. Even with Wes Brown's bad knees, Tennessee managed with essentially three DTs last year. We have youth, but not a lot of size; only Hughes tops the 300 pound mark. Do we have three capable bodies in this mix?
- John Brown: 6'2" 285 lbs Jr.
- Steven Fowlkes: 6'5" 253 lbs So.
- Montori Hughes: 6'4" 305 lbs So.
- Arthur Jeffery: 6'3" 294 lbs Fr.
- Chase Nelson: 6'4" 292 lbs Sr.
- Rae Sykes: 6'4" 270 lbs Jr.
- Marlon Walls: 6'3" 278 lbs. So.