Gone from that stout stop unit are first-team defensive end Jason Hall, first-team linebacker Jason Mitchell and first-team cornerback Jason Allen.
In addition to the three Jasons, UT’s defense must find replacements for first-team end Parys Haralson, first-team tackle Jesse Mahelona, second-team tackle Tony McDaniel, along with first-team linebackers Kevin Simon and Omar Gaither.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize that the Vol defense has been gutted by graduation and one premature evacuation for the NFL Draft (McDaniel). Senior linebacker Marvin Mitchell concedes that a lot of familiar faces are missing this spring but believes UT’s defense can be just as stingy in 2006 as it was in 2005.
“I feel great about the upcoming season,” he said recently. “You wish you had Tony McDaniel coming back but we’ve got Justin (Harrell) and Turk (McBride) upfront, then Xavier (Mitchell) and Antonio (Reynolds) on the outside. And we’ve got the whole secondary back because they played without Jason Allen most of last season.”
All of Mitchell’s points are valid. Harrell and McBride are quality tackles. Mitchell and Reynolds show great potential at end, as do Robert Ayers and juco transfer Walter Fisher. And, as noted, the Vols already adjusted to the loss of Allen, who suffered a hip injury in Game 5 against Georgia last fall and missed the final six games of ‘05.
You’ll notice that Mitchell’s optimistic comments concerned only the front four and the secondary. He made no mention of having to replace all three starting linebackers from last fall. That was by design. He was saving those comments for last.
“The question is: Who’s going to step in at linebacker?” he said. “I’ve been around five years and I have a lot of experience, even though I haven’t started a lot of games.”
In addition to himself, Mitchell pointed out that junior Ryan Karl and sophomore Jerod Mayo are back after playing second-team roles in 2005. Each recorded 13 tackles in 2005, with Karl also contributing a pass breakup and two fumble recoveries. Big-time talents Rico McCoy and Andre Mathis will be available after redshirting in 2005 due to injuries. The outlook has been further brightened by the early spring linebacker play of converted safety Adam-Myers White.
All of these factors have Mitchell convinced the new-look linebacking corps will be just fine, thank you.
As the Vol senior put it: “Us linebackers are going to show you guys we’re not as young as you think.”