A few years back Tennessee could stake a legitimate claim to being Defensive Tackle U. John Henderson won the 2000 Outland Trophy and combined with Albert Haynesworth to give the Vols the most imposing tackle tandem in college football. Even after Henderson and Haynesworth departed as first-round picks in the 2002 NFL Draft, the tackle talent continued to flow on The Hill.
Over the next five years the Big Orange cranked out such studs as Rashad Moore, Aubrayo Franklin, Jesse Mahelona, Justin Harrell and Turk McBride. All five have gone on to play in the NFL, with Harrell being another first-round pick.
Then, all of a sudden, the well dried up. After exhibiting tremendous potential as a sophomore, J.T. Mapu faded following a two-year Mormon mission. Another prep All-American, Demonte Bolden, proved to be merely serviceable. Junior college transfer Walter Fisher started just four games in his three years in the program and heralded signee Donald Langley spun his wheels, then quit after being moved to offensive guard.
That, in a nutshell, is how a program gets in the situation Tennessee found itself in this spring: With Bolden and Fisher out of eligibility, the Vols had one solid tackle, senior Dan Williams, and a slew of question marks.
Desperate for a competent player to pair with Williams, Tennessee moved senior Wes Brown (6-4, 260) from end to tackle. He promptly sustained a minor knee injury that sidelined him for the rest of spring practice. As a bleak outlook grew even bleaker, the Vols needed someone to emerge.
Someone did, and his name was Montori Hughes. The 6-4, 312-pound mid-term freshman from Murfreesboro made plays in practice. Then, as if to prove he was no fluke, he made plays in scrimmages. His work was so impressive that he zoomed past senior Andre Mathis (6-2, 280) and junior Victor Thomas (6-4, 286) on the depth chart, finishing the spring a half-step behind Wes Brown.
Thanks to the impending return of Brown and the emergence of Hughes, Tennessee now has two capable tackles to line up next to Dan Williams.
If junior Chase Nelson (6-4, 292) bounces back from a knee injury that caused him to miss the entire 2008 season, the Vols will have four adequate tackles. And, if incoming freshman Marlon Walls (6-4, 293) proves to be the force many observers project him to be, those pre-spring worries about the D-tackle position will be forgotten.
Obviously, replacing seniors Bolden and Fisher with freshmen Hughes and Walls is a risky venture. Some growing pains are inevitable, and depth remains a concern. Still, replacing Bolden and Fisher will be a lot easier in 2009 than replacing Henderson and Haynesworth was in 2002.
Using my usual grading system of Plus-2 (significantly stronger), Plus-1 (somewhat stronger), Zero (about the same), Minus-1 (somewhat weaker) and Minus-2 (significantly weaker), I'm giving the defensive tackle position a zero rating. Brown, Hughes and Walls should be at least as productive this fall as Bolden and Fisher were last fall.