KNOXVILLE—The University of Tennessee football team had two returning starters in its front seven in May.
The Volunteers will be down to zero for the next two weeks of preseason camp.
Defensive lineman Malik Jackson, the Vols' best returning lineman, will miss the next two weeks of practice after spraining his right knee during Friday afternoon's practice. Jackson, who walked off the field in a brace and seemingly good spirits, is on the shelf with Herman Lathers, the linebacker who fractured his ankle in June and remains out indefinitely.
"We are now zero out of seven, that's right, but we weren't very good in the front seven last year, so some people would say that's the best news we've had all season," coach Derek Dooley said. "You've heard that saying, 'The good news is we've got everybody back. The bad news is we've got everybody back.' The bad news is we've got zero out of seven; the good news is we've got zero out of seven.'
"No, we want Malik back, and we want Herman back. We want two out of seven."
The Vols feel good about sophomore defensive end Jacques Smith's ability and like converted offensive lineman Daniel Hood's progress at defensive tackle, but the other front seven spots are up for grabs this month among inexperienced players.
Hood and Jackson are listed as starters at defensive tackle, and Smith is projected to start at one defensive end spot. Willie Bohannon and Marlon Walls are listed as co-starters at the other end spot, and the Vols need to find depth.
"It's a competition all around, no matter if I'm the co-starter right now with him or if I'm a co-starter with Jac or Ben [Martin] -- it's a competition," Bohannon said earlier this week. "I don't really focus on one person I'm competing with. I feel like I need to work hard to get myself right and everything will take care of itself, because I can't really control what the depth chart says for the first game."
Bohannon played in every game and started one in 2009 but last year made just nine tackles and two sacks in 11 games. He progressed in the spring, though, and the fourth-year junior feels comfortable with the system and line coach Lance Thompson.
"I think I had a good spring," Bohannon said. "There were a lot of things I need to improve on, though, and also the things that I think improved on then, I still need to improve on now. It never changes: No matter how good you think you are, you need to get better. If you think that you're perfect, then something's wrong."
Walls ruptured his Achilles' tendon early last August and missed all of last season. The redshirt sophomore, who's working at end after switching from tackle in the spring, has played in just seven games in his UT career.
"I'm OK, but you can always get better. [You've] just got to go in the film room and continue getter better," the 275-pound Walls said Friday. "I've been so used to being inside in such a small space that when I get outside, I'm used to doing certain moves and I can't do them anymore."
Dooley said this week he prefers a six- to eight-player rotation on the defensive line, so the Vols will need sophomore tackles Corey Miller and Joseph Ayres, junior college transfer Maurice Couch or a freshman to step up this month.
"All those D-linemen, it's going to be role-playing," Dooley said. "They all have some things they really do well, and it's finding that role where they can help us in a game. Very few of them have an ability to just go out there and it doesn't matter what the situation, what the personnel is, just go play. We have to do a good job of understanding what their role is and putting them in a position where they can help us and try to limit the times they're in a position that doesn't use their strengths."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...