KNOXVILLE -- Lane Kiffin acknowledges and appreciates everything that current and former walk-ons have given his University of Tennessee football program.
Walk-ons have started most of this season at center and left guard. They've aligned his defense at middle linebacker. They've filled in for spot duty at strongside linebacker and safety. They've blocked and tackled fairly well on special teams. They've kicked and held for field goals and extra points.
They've filled void after void for the Volunteers.
Kiffin said he wasn't sure his Vols (6-5, 3-4 Southeastern Conference) would be bowl-eligible without the contributions of players who came to campus without an athletic scholarship.
But with his next breath, the coach said he won't be doing his job correctly is similar incidents surface a few years down the road.
"It reminds us what we're here to do, and that's to go get a lot of really good players, so we don't have this issue again," Kiffin said Sunday afternoon. "We have some guys stepping up for us who are playing well, but this is not a problem we want to ever have again."
The Vols have parted ways with 13 scholarship players for various reasons since Kiffin arrived in December, and six more have suffered season-ending injuries. A 20th player, freshman safety Janzen Jackson, is barred from team activities pending closer examination of his role in an attempted armed robbery case.
UT's offense dealt with most of its problems before October, but the defense has recently started stockpiling setbacks. An inordinate number of fresh faces played big roles in the Vols' 31-16 win over Vanderbilt on Saturday night in Neyland Stadium.
"Any time that you're not a very deep team, any time that your numbers are down, that's going to show up at the end of the season," Kiffin said. "That's really going to show if you have (issues) at DB or linebacker. It's really started to show up, and that just reminds you of why you've got to recruit so well from top to bottom -- not just the top guys that you sign, the five stars, but all the way to the bottom of your class.
"We're up and down, because there's different names in their all the time. If there's a group that really hurts you to get hurt, it's your linebackers, because they effect everything. We continue to have issues there, as far as guys getting hurt, and it's made it tough to be consistent."
The Vols lost another linebacker Saturday night. Kiffin confirmed that freshman strongsider Greg King was out for the season with a broken elbow that will require surgery.
Kiffin hopes to have normal starting strongsider LaMarcus Thompson back this week. Thompson left the Ole Miss game in a stretcher after the latest (and most serious) of his recurring shoulder stingers, and King replaced him against Vanderbilt.
"He's still questionable," Kiffin said. "Wednesday and Thursday, we'll get to see where he's at, but we'll need him to play."
Redshirt freshman Herman Lathers, who stepped in at middle linebacker three weeks ago following ACL tears to Nick Reveiz and Savion Frazier, said the defense doesn't plan to start making excuses.
Lathers collected 12 tackles against the Commodores following a tough SEC starting debut at Ole Miss.
"This game said a lot of about us," Lathers said. "We've got a lot of pride about ourselves. The last game, we didn't do too well, but we came back out this game and re-established our pride and our name.
"We've got a lot of new guys in there ... but football is all about trusting your teammates. If they weren't here, then they couldn't play ball. But they're here, so evidently they can play ball."
All-American Eric Berry made similar remarks about the defensive backfield, which entered Saturday without Jackson and nickel cornerback Marsalous Johnson (thumb) and lost cornerback Art Evans during the game to a shoulder injury.
"That's why everybody should practice like they're a starter," Berry said. "Look at us. I think everybody on the team's going to start before too long."
Kiffin said Baylor School graduate Devin Mathis will compete with Daniel Lincoln this week to see who kicks against Kentucky.
Mathis, who left the program in January to study in Mexico, returned to practice earlier this month, re-certified his NCAA eligibility and went 4-for-4 against Vanderbilt. He converted all three extra points and a 25-yard field goal.
Lincoln hasn't been the same since his injury, getting three attempts blocked.
Kiffin said Mathis would have been allowed to kick from inside 45 yards against Vanderbilt, and big-footed junior punter Chad Cunningham would have taken late-half attempts from longer distances.
"It all depends on the situation," Kiffin said. "We'll look at everything again this week and come up with a plan."
Mathis said he will prepare as a starter and "just see what happens."
"I'm confident," Mathis added. "I know I can do it, and if they call my name, I'll go out there and do it."
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