KNOXVILLE -- The charge from the edge is there, but Derek Dooley needs more from the middle.
The second-year University of Tennessee football coach remains concerned with the Volunteers' push at defensive tackle, and he used the analogy of throwing a football out of a well after Monday afternoon's practice to illustrate how he needs more from his interior linemen.
"They don't have to have sacks, but tackles can push the pocket," Dooley said. "If you're standing at the bottom of a well and you try to throw a ball out, it's hard. There's no room to follow through, right? You're sitting there and there's a wall, that's what two good tackles who can push the guards back into the lap of the quarterback can do, then he's throwing it out of a well and he short-arms it.
Malik Jackson, the Vols' best defensive lineman, has been out since the first week of camp with a sprained MCL. The senior's absence has opened the door for more reps for sophomore Corey Miller and junior college-transfer Maurice Couch, but the depth and the group's overall size are concerns.
"I still think we're undersized compared to a lot of other teams in the SEC," said Daniel Hood, one of the Vols' bigger tackles at 300 pounds. "Even though I've got 20 or 30 pounds on [Jackson], he's way better than I am. He can play the double-team blocks just as well as I can. Corey is as elusive as they get."
Despite Jackson's status as a sure thing, Dooley said Jackson needs to work and hopes the 6-foot-5, 270-pounder returns early next week, though he doesn't expect Jackson to be "full-go" by then.
"It's not like he was a 12-game dominant player," Dooley said. "He was playing at a real high level this spring [and] got a good spring practice under his belt. But he definitely needs some good work going into the first game. He needs to hit, he needs to tackle and he hasn't done that."
The Vols' lack of size and depth may mean different tackles and ends may play in different situations against different types of offenses. UT will need Hood and the 305-pound Couch to counter run-heavy teams; Jackson and Miller could thrive rushing the quarterback on passing downs; and the Vols have a four-end package to optimize their pass rush.
"It doesn't matter if you're playing in a spread league or you're playing in a pro-style league -- you've got to be good up front," defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said Sunday. "You've got to be good there. There's really no substitute.
"We're still probably not going to be the biggest D-line out there, and that's OK. We've got to play very technical, and we've got to know exactly what we're doing. If we do that, we've got a shot."
Dooley called Hood a "steady hand" and "first-down run-stopper." The 270-pound Miller's play in Jackson's absence has drawn praise from Dooley and Wilcox, and Hood said Couch's conditioning as he manages his asthma has improved since the start of camp. Jackson and Miller are converted ends with better pass-rushing skills than the line-plugging duo of Hood and Couch.
"It's good to have a mixture of those guys," Hood said, "with people like me and [Couch] who can get in there and bust our heads again the other offensive linemen."
As nice it is to have that combination, though, the Vols still need to build more wells.
"We're getting it at end, but then [the quarterback's] able to step up and make a throw," said Dooley. "We need better push from the inside. We need Malik back."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.