UT's Young D-line Gets Younger

Phillip Fulmer

On the surface, word that Tennessee freshman Eric Young was being moved to defense seems insignificant in the total scheme of things, but it might just be one of the season's most noteworthy early developments and it spells GOOD NEWS in capital letters for UT.

A high school All-American and one of the nation's top 25 prospects in the Class of 2003, Young was expected to redshirt this season in order to add the size and strength needed to compete as an offensive lineman in the SEC. When interviewed earlier this summer Young conceded a redshirt season was likely and that he was willing to make the best of his hiatus.

"I'll probably redshirt this year, which I don't have any problems with, I think it's best for a lineman," he said. "You learn the program and get bigger and stronger. It's totally different starting as a receiver and as a lineman because you've got to have strength and technique to be a lineman. I'll probably redshirt, but hopefully I'll be playing by my sophomore year. That's my goal, put it like that."

The 6-4, 275-pound South Carolina native graded out 88 percent as a senior at Union Comprehensive High School and finished his three-year career with a extraordinary 183 pancake blocks, as the Yellow Jackets posted a 40-5 record, won two Class-3A state crowns and one runner-up trophy. For good measure, he added a couple of state shot put titles to his imposing athletic resume.

Young's achievements on the gridiron are even more impressive considering that until the came out for fall football practice at Union as a sophomore, he had never played the game at any organized level in his life.

"I was a heavyweight wrestler, but I wasn't any good," he said. "I decided to try and find something else I was good at. I gave up wrestling."

It didn't take long for Young to find his true calling once he stepped on the football field. In fact his high school head coach Dale Anthony knew he has something special the first time he saw Young in action.

"From the first day he actually made contact with another football player," Anthony said, "it was like he had a God-given gift."

Young augmented that gift for contact after his successful first season by hitting the weight room. Again a neophyte among veterans, Young made quick progress and less than two years later was benching 320 and squatting 455.

"I didn't fool with any weights because I didn't think I needed to," he said. "I guess the biggest surprise to me was how fast I caught on. The biggest thing for me was when I got into the weight room. I was like two different people once I started lifting weights."

Because he had a lot to learn about assignments and technique, Young's reps were limited almost exclusively to offense at Union, but with his exceptional 4.8 speed in the 40 and excellent quickness he seemed like a natural to stuff the run and chase the ball.

"I didn't touch the field on defense last season," he said. "I've played goal-line defense. At one point there was some talk about me playing defense (in college), but it's all been offensive tackle now."

That was until yesterday when Young had what Coach Phillip Fulmer would describe as "huge" day on the O-line. The effort was enough to convince the head coach that Young might help Tennessee as a true freshman on the defensive front.

"He's got incredibly quick feet," said The Insiders Jamie Newberg. "And he's got such a large upside. The kid is still learning the game. He could emerge, down the road, as the best player in the Carolinas from this class."

It will take a while for Young to get up to speed on defense and he could well end up wearing a red shirt this season as originally projected. However what he brings to his new role is something that can't be acquired with practice alone and it's the most important asset any lineman can have. Young's ability to get off the line with the snap is absolutely uncanny. That allows him to seize the advantage and gain leverage over his opponent. It also enables him to compensate for what he might give up in size and strength. Those disadvantages would still persist in pass protection which is why he's getting a look on defense now.

The move also speaks volumes about the state of Tennessee's offense line, particularly the guard positions which were suspect coming into this season. But with last season's starters Jason Respert and Chavis Smith being pushed by sophomores Cody Douglas and Rob Smith there is plenty of depth at guards. If the Vols can afford to use a player of Young's stature on the defensive line, they're loaded on the offensive line.

Young has made a habit of defying convention and confounding the experts in his relatively brief gridiron career. Who knows what surprise he might pull next?

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