Karl boosts pass defense

Compared to the uproar caused by Erik Ainge's injured pinky, Ryan Karl's sore back hardly created a ripple in the Vol Nation during the preseason.

Still, Ryan Karl's return could have considerable impact on No. 15 Tennessee's opener vs. No. 12 Cal tonight at Berkeley.

That's because the Golden Bears might have the finest passing attack the Vols will face all season. They feature a strong-armed quarterback in Nate Longshore and a stable of quality receivers, led by superstar DeSean Jackson.

Tennessee's chances of containing Cal's passing attack improved considerably with the return of Karl, a 6-0, 215-pound senior who was inactive for eight weeks after injuring his back while lifting weights in June.

A former safety, Karl is the best pass defender among Vol linebackers. He ranked third on the team in pass breakups a year ago, which is quite an accomplishment for 'backer. He also calls UT's defensive signals and keeps his defensive mates focused.

"It's been good having him out there," Vol defensive coordinator John Chavis said earlier this week. "He's a leader for us, and he's brought some calming effect to our defense. We operate a lot better with Ryan in the game; there's no question."

In addition to coverage skills and leadership. Karl brings quickness to Tennessee's defense. The Franklin native is one of the SEC's fastest linebackers. That speed will be put to the test tonight against a Cal team that is unusually quick.

"They have a whole bunch of speed at tailback, a whole bunch of speed at wide receiver," Karl noted. "They have a Heisman candidate (Jackson). It's one of the things we have to put up with."

Tennessee's defense always plays fast. Karl says it will have to play even faster than normal tonight.

"If we can get after 'em, play 100 miles an hour, then we'll fare well," he said

Tennessee rolled to a 35-0 lead en route to a 35-18 triumph in last year's game, so the Vols are confident heading into the rematch. Karl insists they haven't let the 2006 game go to their heads, however.

"It gives us confidence but there's nothing we should be overconfident about," he said. "That was last year. They had a new scheme and the quarterback was starting his first game. This is a new year, and we have a different mindset going into it."

Fortunately for the Vols, they also have a healthy Ryan Karl.

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