Saturday's Orange & White Game marks the conclusion of spring football for the Tennessee Volunteers. Sports editor Cliff Chartrand and assistant sports editor Clay Culp will spend the rest of this week giving a position-by-position outlook for Saturday.
Culp continues the series with a look at Tennessee's front seven.
Tennessee's front seven enters the 2008 season with talent, but a number of question marks after suffering some key losses.
The Vols have seen their sack total dwindle since a school-record 50 in 2000, including just 24 sacks last season. To make matters worse, only 14.5 of those sacks were made by players who return in 2008.
The defensive line may be where Phillip Fulmer's teams have dropped off the most since their last top five finish in 2001. There likely isn't a player like Albert Haynesworth, John Henderson or Darwin Walker on this squad, at least not from what they've shown so far.
The 2008 campaign looks like a rebuilding year at defensive end. The Vols lost seniors Xavier Mitchell and Antonio Reynolds who combined for 76 tackles. They'll be replaced by senior Robert Ayers and junior Wes Brown.
Ayers was a highly touted prospect who has yet to fully realize his potential. He appeared in every game last season and registered 33 tackles and he's a guy who has shown flashes of something special.
The South Carolina native led the team with 12 tackles for loss and four sacks in 2007 while splitting time with Reynolds. The problem for Ayers has been consistency, and he needs to change that in his final season on the hill.
Wes Brown played in every game last year as well and totaled eight tackles. Brown was highly recruited coming out of high school as well, but is a bit undersized at 256 lbs.
Brown will have to hold off two talented youngsters in sophomores Chris Walker and Ben Martin. Martin was considered one of the most impressive physical specimen of last year's class, but end is a difficult place for a freshman.
Walker came in as a linebacker but was relegated to special teams play after switching to defensive end. These two will not anchor the line this year, but could provide some highlights rushing the passer.
The Vols have almost no meaningful depth beyond those four, so health will be critical to success at that spot.
The challenge for Tennessee's defensive tackles will be plugging up running lanes more effectively than last year. The front seven was pounded for 200-plus yards against California, Florida, Louisiana-Lafayette and LSU.
They have a chance to make strides with a pair of proven starters in senior Demonte Bolden and junior Dan Williams returning. The two combined for 11.5 tackles for loss and four sacks last season.
Williams proved himself to be a big time performer against Kentucky last year, as his field goal block in overtime snatched victory from Cats' paws. Bolden, though not the dominant force many expected, is the Vols most experienced and consistent option at tackle.
Senior Walter Fisher is the only experienced reserve at tackle, so depth is a concern there as well.
Outlook: Defensive line is a bit of a question mark for the Vols, especially defensive end. A consistently solid, but rarely spectacular, season would be considered a success for the unit. Fortunately, a much improved secondary should take some heat off the line and allow defensive coordinator John Chavis to bring pressure with blitzes.
Chavis rarely fields a bad linebacker unit. At least one linebacker has been drafted in the Fulmer era every year except 1993, 1994, 1997 and 2004. However, this year presents one of his biggest challenges.
Jerod Mayo's decision to leave for the NFL draft was a costly one for the linebacking corps. His 140 tackles were the most by a Vol since 1988. That, coupled with Ryan Karl's departure, leaves the Vols short a staggering 222 tackles at linebacker.
Junior Rico McCoy is the Vols most experienced returnee at linebacker, and he'll man the weakside. He has All-America potential of his own despite being overshadowed the last two years by Mayo.
McCoy introduced himself to Southern Mississippi quarterback Jeremy Young last September with a bone-jarring form tackle for one of the year's most exciting plays. Expect more highlights from the junior this year.
The outlook beyond McCoy is far from bleak, but certainly lacking in experience. Ellix Wilson is the leading candidate to step in for Mayo in the middle. The senior recorded 24 tackles last season and added three sacks.
Nevin McKenzie, a senior out of junior college, is expected to start at the strong side after his move from safety early last year. The senior packs a wallop, so look for McKenzie to do some damage on the blitz.
Adam Myers-White is the likely backup at strong side linebacker. The former Army All-American has just one more season to make an impact.
A big group of youngsters will be chomping at the bit to get their own share of playing time, but none of them have more than 10 tackles to their name.
Knoxville native and walk-on player Nick Reveiz is leading the charge after leading the team in special teams tackles last year. LaMarcus Thompson, Savion Frazier and Chris Donald make up an inexperienced group that will need to step up and provide some much needed depth.
Outlook: Realistically, the Vols have only one proven player, Rico McCoy. If this was any other unit, that might spell doom. However, I have have a lot of faith in Chavis. He's maligned for his strategy, but the man can coach linebackers. With the potential the secondary has, a simple level of consistency and smart play would suffice.