Knoxville News Sentinel/ Saul Young The Tennessee defensive line go through drills during practice at Haslam Field on Sunday.
KNOXVILLE — The University of Tennessee has experimented with several converted defensive ends and offensive linemen in preseason camp to find defensive tackle help.
The Volunteers do have one true tackle possibility to line up alongside sophomore Montori Hughes, but redshirt freshman Arthur Jeffery hasn’t played in a game since September 2008.
“It feels like longer than that,” the 6-foot-3, 300-pound Jeffery said after Tuesday’s morning practice. “It feels like forever.”
Jeffery was on the verge of mega-prospect status entering his senior season at Booker High School in Sarasota, Fla. He was named all-state as a junior and was a Florida Football Magazine Reebok Florida Phenom heading into his final season. He claimed that colleges all over the country — including Florida’s big three of Florida, Florida State and Miami — had already offered him scholarships.
Then he tore an ACL in his senior opener, and “85 to 90 percent” of his scholarship offers evaporated. He only remembers Tennessee, Arkansas, South Florida, Central Florida and Florida Atlantic standing by their offers.
“It was a heartbreaker,” Jeffery said. “I felt lucky to end up at a place like Tennessee.”
Not that losing all big three offers was crushing, in and of itself.
“I’ve always hated the Gators,” he said. “My dad’s a Florida State fan. Miami, they have a good tradition ... but I didn’t like any of them. I was an NFL guy. I liked the Cowboys.”
That was the only silver lining to an otherwise unfortunate setback. Trying to completely heal an ACL on a 300-pound lineman is never an easy proposition.
“It’s usually a two-year process (to return to full strength),” Vols defensive line coach Chuck Smith said.
Complicating matters was what Jeffery considered a mediocre rehabilitation process in Florida the first few months.
“The treatment I received back at home was adequate,” he said. “It was enough, but I’m pretty sure there’s more stuff I could have done. But now that I’ve gotten up here, I’ve gotten a whole lot stronger.”
But he’s still got a long way to go. The player, his position coach and head coach found common ground with that diagnosis.
“He’s getting better,” first-year UT head coach Derek Dooley said. “He’s young. He battled through some injuries before I got here, so this is new to him. With offensive linemen and defensive linemen, you just get in there and play. He’s doing better.
“In a normal situation, what’s realistic would be you’ve got no chance to play this year — we need you to develop. But we’re not in that, so what’s realistic if you might see him out there.”
Sophomore Marlon Walls’ ruptured Achilles probably bumped Jeffery up to the 2-deep, though the Vols haven’t released an official depth chart since that injury.
“I’m trying to get there as fast as I can,” Jeffery said. “I’m improving daily, just trying to stay up with the (starters) and everybody in front of me. What I mean by that is knowing what they know, and being able to blend in whether they’re in or not — you know, fit in with the rotation.
“I’m pretty good now. I’m a lot more mobile than I was last year. Just getting all my strength back, that’s my main focus. Just trying to get back into the feel of the game, that was one of my main issues. I’m kind of dealing with that all over again, but I’m getting back into it.”
Smith, like Dooley, hinted that Jeffery might not see the field this season in a normal situation. But, like his boss, Smith noted that the Vols’ situation isn’t normal.
A new face must step up at a crucial position. Perhaps that will be Jeffery. He, like everyone else at the position, will get chance after chance to prove himself.
“He’s improved. He’s working hard,” Smith said. “Now we’ve got to work on things like understanding how to strike and pad level and also teaching the guys to understand the game. Teaching them how to play to certain blocks and how to read the scheme and why you’re on the field. Arthur’s been working really hard. He did well in the conditioning. Bennie (Wylie) did an excellent job with Arthur.
“I think time is on Arthur’s side. He’s a redshirt freshman. I think he’ll be able to help us in the future. We just hope he keeps developing, but he’s definitely working hard and hasn’t shown any signs of any problems coming back form his ACL.”
Other contacts for Wes Rucker are www.twitter.com/wesrucker and www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.