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KNOXVILLE — The depth chart suggests the rotation could reach 10.
Lance Thompson isn't ready to put a number on it yet.
The University of Tennessee defensive line coach still has one more day of practice and a walk-through Friday in advance of the Volunteers' season opener against Montana on Saturday, which is reason enough for him not to declare that UT will use the 10 linemen listed on the two-deep chart released earlier this week.
Given the variety of personnel Thompson has, though, it's likely the Vols could get close to that number, at least until they figure out who's good enough to help.
"I'm hopeful that we'll have a good, healthy rotation where we can play guys and keep them fresh," Thompson said after Wednesday morning's practice. "We've got guys that are situational in their ability, but the reality is they've got to be able to play both [the run and the pass]. I think we've got a number of guys that have improved their games fundamentally. Whether they'll hold up in certain situations better than others, that's yet to be determined.
"The bottom line is we're not going to put anybody on the field that's not ready to represent us in the right way and play winning football."
Senior tackle Malik Jackson and sophomore end Jacques Smith figure to be on the field about as much as they can, but the rest of the rotation might depend on the situation. The Vols could use sophomore tackle Corey Miller or junior end Willie Bohannon on passing downs, and freshman linebacker Curt Maggitt has made his presence felt during camp as a pass-rushing end.
Sophomore tackle Daniel Hood and junior college transfer Maurice Couch, at 293 and 305 pounds respectively, are better fits as run-stoppers. Coach Derek Dooley has praised senior end Ben Martin's ability as a run-defending end, and the 281-pound Marlon Walls fits that mold as well. End Steven Fowlkes and tackle Joseph Ayres also made the depth chart as co-backups.
Jackson missed two weeks of camp with a knee sprain that allowed for the linemen behind him to get more reps.
"It's never good to lose a good player like that, and Malik handled it well," Thompson said. "It's always good to get other kids an opportunity. I think Corey took advantage of his opportunity. I think it gives us a chance to get Mo to where we need to get Mo in terms of conditioning and learning the scheme. We've still got a ways to go there, but he's making good progress."
How the Vols will hold up against the power running games remains a concern, but UT's September stretch includes spread offenses for Montana and Cincinnati as well as a Florida offense transitioning from the spread to more of a pro style. Dooley believes the Vols have some ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks with only a four-man rush, which allows them to put more defenders in pass coverage.
"We're going to adjust our scheme every week based on what offenses do, but I'm hopeful that we do have five or six guys in third-down situations for our 'Rabbit' package we can roll in there and try to get pressure on the quarterback," Thompson said.
"The deal nowadays is we just want to affect the quarterback, affect his rhythm, affect maybe his drop mechanics and his vision on his downfield receivers. What we're really preaching is keeping our rush-lane integrity, affecting the quarterback and being sound against the screen and draw game."
How many guys the Vols will need to accomplish those objectives will continue being learned Saturday.
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 ...