KNOXVILLE — Donald Langley thought he was going to step onto the University of Tennessee campus last year and dominate.
Instead, the high school All-American stepped onto a college football field and learned a valuable lesson in humility.
Walk-on center Michael Frogg welcomed Langley to UT by putting him, in Langley’s words, “right on my (tail).”
“We weren’t wearing pads or anything,” Langley said while laughing. “I came in here thinking I was everything. I found out in a hurry that everybody here was a great player.”
The Volunteers don’t need Langley and the other young defensive tackles to be everything — at least not yet — but they certainly need them to improve this spring. UT has just three experienced players at that important position, and the season’s first opponent was recently changed to UCLA.
“It’s really crucial,” said Victor Thomas, another big man under the spring spotlight. “We normally have five or six D-tackles (in the rotation). It will be important for us to make steps so we can play this coming year.”
Vols coach Phillip Fulmer didn’t hold back Tuesday when asked about his inexperienced defensive tackles. He mentioned Langley and Thomas but didn’t bring up rising junior Chase Nelson, whose thumb injury kept him off the field most of last season.
“I see Donald giving really exceptional effort, and that’s encouraging. We just need more production,” Fulmer said. “I see flashes — and flashes would be about it — from Victor.”
All three players look like SEC tackles in pads. None weigh 300 pounds, but defensive tackles coach Dan Brooks said the Vols “don’t need 300 pounders to do what we do.” Nelson and Thomas are both listed at 6-foot-4, 270 pounds.
“I feel like I’ve got a lot of work to do,” Thomas said. “I’ve got to keep working on my technique and keep going hard every play.”
Langley has dropped 20 pounds from his 6-2 frame since last season. The Washington, D.C.-area native claims to be quicker as a 285-pounder.
“I’m just taking what Coach Brooks says to heart, because he’s the best D-line coach in the business,” Langley said. “You’ve got to take everything he says and soak it up. In the beginning, when I first got here, it was hard to be coachable and just take what he told me. Now I’ve just got to do what he says and listen to what he says.
“He won’t steer me wrong. Everything he says is right.”
Thomas showed some of the “flashes” Fulmer alluded to in Tuesday’s Tennessee Drill. Consistency remains the issue, though Fulmer said his comments were also directed at some of UT’s young offensive linemen.
“You challenge them, but what they’ve got to do is learn to challenge themselves,” Fulmer said. “You can’t be standing over them every play that they’re out there, although we are right now. They have to challenge themselves to get in great condition.
“We played less than 30 plays out there (Tuesday), and you’d have thought we’d played two football games, back-to-back, the way their eyes were and their demeanor was. They just don’t understand.”
If they don’t pick it up, Fulmer said the Vols — who should have an embarrassment of riches in the secondary — could play more three-down linemen packages.
“In the offseason program ... they’ll be challenged to get in great shape,” Fulmer said. “They’ve got to show their heart, to be honest with you. Otherwise, we’ll go to a three-down scheme before we play somebody that’s not going to go out there and give you their best effort.”
Coaches feel confident in their returning tackles, but they know Demonte Bolden, Dan Williams and Walter Fisher will need help for UT to contend for an SEC championship.
“And we know that, too,” Langley said. “There’s no excuse now. We know what it takes, and it’s time to get in there and help this team.”