KNOXVILLE - There seems to be no shortage of motivation for the position group that's widely considered Tennessee's biggest question mark entering the 2014 football season.
Whether the Volunteers' defensive line parlays that into success on the field remains to be seen.
"We've had a chip on our shoulder," defensive tackle Danny O'Brien said following Monday's practice, "ever since we were predicted to be the worst defensive line and worst offensive line in the country. I know Coach [Butch] Jones told us that as soon as we came out for training camp, and we let that drive us.
"I love hearing that. I love being the underdog, because they're not going to know we're coming, and we're coming hard."
Despite Curt Maggitt's ankle injury and Corey Vereen's quiet training camp, Tennessee feels better about its defensive ends than its defensive tackles thanks to freshmen Derek Barnett and Dewayne Hendrix's play this month.
Jones took a fairly realistic approach about the defensive tackles Monday after he said following Saturday night's open practice that the Vols needed players to step up and "take complete control" at the position.
"It's a great concern," he said. "We have to have some individuals step up, and we're going to have to do it by committee. It's learning how to strain, how to play for that '63' effort and that mentality. We all know you have to stop the run first and foremost. We're talented, but we're very, very, very, very, very young, as we all know, so it's a concern moving forward."
Tennessee was the only SEC team besides Kentucky to allow more than 200 yards per game on the ground in the 2003, and the Vols are swapping Daniel McCullers and Daniel Hood, a pair of 300-pounders, for a smaller group led by beefed-up end Jordan Williams and the 6-foot-2, 286-pound O'Brien.
Junior college transfer Owen Williams and freshmen Dimarya Mixon and Michael Sawyers also figure to be in the rotation for defensive line coach Steve Stripling.
"I think we're going to be different because we're moving better," O'Brien said. "Our leverage is a lot better, and football is all about leverage. I think we're playing double teams better, even though we don't have the size to stay in the gaps. Our technique has improved a lot with being under Coach Strip for two years now. I think we're going a great job with it."
Stripling actually prefers smaller, more athletic defensive linemen, but the Vols have concerns up front defensively.
"We're a little bit undersized," Jordan Williams said, "but we're moving around a lot, so we'll definitely be making plays in there."
During Monday's practice, Jones cited a story in The Tennessean in Nashville to deliver a verbal jab to freshman tailback Jalen Hurd, who was a five-star recruit. Earlier this month, he reminded the 6-1, 221-pounder from the midstate that both of Alabama's top tailbacks began their careers on special teams.
"That's his way of encouragement," Hurd said with a smile. "He tries to get into your game mentally, and that's very important. In a game, you're going to go through a lot of mental adversities, and that's what he tries to work on in practice."
A number of first-year players impressed Jones or earned starting spots during Tennessee's training camp, but it's not known how many will start or play against Utah State in the season opener.
That number figures to go up as the season progresses.
"The start of the season and Utah State isn't the end," Jones said. "These individuals are going to continue to develop from now all the way to the end of the season. Some individuals may not be game-ready right now. Some develop more so than others.
"I'm encouraged by what I see. Some will be ready by game three, game four, game five; some will be ready by Utah State."
The prognosis on defensive tackle Trevarris Saulsberry, who hurt his left knee in Saturday night's open practice, is not as bad as it appeared it would be when the 6-4, 296-pounder put no weight on his left leg as he was helped off the field and left Neyland Stadium on crutches.
Jones said Saulsberry aggravated the knee injury he suffered last season, one that required surgery.
"Right now it could be a couple days, it could be a week," Jone said. "He reaggravated his knee, but we don't anticipate him being gone for the season. It's going to be how his body progresses, how he heals, so that's a positive."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.