"Replacing the number of front guys we have to replace is a challenge," he concedes, "but it's not as big as it might seem on paper because we have a lot of guys that can play. We always try to play six defensive ends and five or six defensive tackles if we can."
The Vols did just that last season. Starting ends Parys Haralson and Jason Hall are gone but there are some quality players assuming their spots. Case in point: Turk McBride, who has started at both tackle and end during his UT career. McBride is bigger (6-4, 275) than Haralson or Hall and just as talented.
"Turk McBride is as good as anybody in the conference from the standpoint of being an every-down consistent player, whether it be versus the run or the pass," Fulmer says.
Antonio Reynolds, Xavier Mitchell and Robert Ayers saw backup action at end in 2005 and should be able to assume beefier roles in 2006. Then there is Walter Fisher, a junior college transfer who was having a fine spring until he suffered a shoulder injury.
"Antonio Reynolds and Xavier Mitchell have played good football for us in the past," Fulmer notes. "And Robert Ayers is another guy with great potential. He has shown flashes of being a really good player. If we can get him to mature and play at the level he should play, I think he can be a dynamic football player for us."
Jesse Mahelona's departure leaves a hole at tackle but returning starter Justin Harrell is a legitimate All-America candidate. As Fulmer notes: "Obviously, Justin Harrell kind of anchors that (D-line) group."
Minus all three starting linebackers from last fall, you'd think Fulmer might be wringing his hands. He isn't. He saw in spring practice that there's tremendous young talent available at the ‘backer spots.
"We've recruited pretty well at that position," the head man notes. "Even though they're going to be youthful and they're going to make mistakes, our linebacker corps should be very athletic."
Senior Marvin Mitchell is a lock to start in the middle. He has excellent skills but has seen his career hampered by injuries. Flashy sophomore Jerod Mayo won a starting job last September, then missed most of the season due to injuries.
"Jerod Mayo had just earned a starting position when he got hurt against Georgia last year," Fulmer recalls. "I'm very encouraged about his progress."
Junior Ryan Karl improved steadily and emerged as a quality linebacker as the '05 season unfolded. Redshirt freshman Rico McCoy was the breakout player of 2006 spring drills. Sophomores Adam Myers-White and Ellix Wilson showed flashes last spring that they can contribute in '06, as well.
"Ryan Karl has played some really fine football for us," Fulmer says. "Rico McCoy is a young guy that we think has fabulous talent and future. Because of the injury he wasn't able to play last year but he's got potential. He's got to learn to play within the system every down because he can make a difference in the ballgame."