JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — Tennessee has scoured the junior college ranks for defensive linemen in its recruiting efforts under third-year coach Derek Dooley.
Early in training camp, a trio of juco transfers are providing the help they were signed to bring.
Dooley continued to praise Maurice Couch and Darrington Sentimore for their activity during camp, and he delivered a big statement on the development of Daniel McCullers.
"I want to go see what he does on the film," Dooley cautioned after the Volunteers' first camp scrimmage Saturday afternoon at Science Hill High School. "But he's really making progress. I think he can help us inside."
That's big news — literally, considering McCullers is 6-foot-6 and around 380 pounds — for an unproven defensive line needing an oversized run-plugger at nose tackle. At his size, McCullers is difficult to move.
Defensive line coach John Palermo said earlier in the week that McCullers' biggest areas of work were playing lower and improving his conditioning.
The transition from junior college to the Southeastern Conference typically is the hardest for big defensive linemen, as Couch learned last season. It took the 6-2, 300-pound nose tackle about half the season to finally settle in and become a disruptor. After arriving overweight and lacking consistency, Sentimore seemingly has flipped a switch this month, according to coaches.
"He's been active all camp," Dooley said of the former Alabama defensive lineman. "Up front, he and Mo have had a really good camp."
In the daily back-and-forth battle between the offense and defense, the Vols' offense may have taken Saturday's bragging rights. UT's defense struggled to stop the run and allowed two big plays: Rajion Neal's 68-yard score and a 61-yard scamper by freshman tailback Quenshaun Watson.
Defensive end Marlon Walls said his unit was undisciplined.
"We were there. It was just guys wanting to chase the ball as opposed to whupping the guy that's in front of you," the senior said. "I think our offense is pretty explosive, and the fact that we can go toe-to-toe with them guys sometimes, it's a good thing. We expect to beat those guys every day, and I'm pretty sure it's the same way on their end."
After the defense suffered from mental mistakes during Thursday's practice in Knoxville, Dooley said the unit struggled with an installation overload as it continues to learn Sal Sunseri's new defense.
"They played fast, but they made a ton of mistakes," the coach said. "Hey, we're throwing a lot at them. We've got to shape it down for them. We know as coaches we can't just give them the whole book and say, 'Go do it,' and blame them if they don't do it.
"We can't do that, and Sal knows that and I know that. But we've also got to push them, and we're going to keep pushing them to learn it. As we get closer to game week, we're going to have to go in and limit it so we play fast [and] don't make that mistake."
After suffering a shoulder sprain in practice earlier this week, receiver Cordarrelle Patterson missed Thursday's practice and has been limited the past two days. Yet the touted juco transfer scrimmaged Saturday in a red non-contact jersey. He caught one pass for 26 yards.
"It showed some toughness on his part," Dooley said. "He's not 100 percent, and he went out there in a red shirt and caught a ball. That was good to see. Just came out here and competed a little bit."
Starting middle linebacker Herman Lathers did not participate in the scrimmage. The fifth-year senior sat out Friday's practice to rest a strained quadriceps. After he missed all of last season with a severe ankle injury and battling minor bumps and bruises during spring, the Vols are taking no chances with their valuable defender. ... UT got four sacks Saturday from defensive end Corey Miller, linebackers Jordan Williams and Channing Fugate and safety Rod Wilks. ... Matt Darr averaged 43 yards on five punts to Michael Palardy's 35-yard average on five boots. ... Freshman tailback Davante Bourque is still not with the team, and his future remains uncertain.
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 ...