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A never-too-soon spring peek, part 2

In some circles, less than two weeks after a team’s bowl game is a tad too soon to start thinking about spring practice.

Jacques Smith will be asked to provide much more than he did as a freshman.

The University of Tennessee sits comfortably outside that circle, though.

With that in mind, here’s the second of a three-part series looking at what the Volunteers must replace — and who might replace them — on Haslam Field this spring.

Today’s focus is UT’s defense. (Note: For the time being, the only commits listed in the mix are ones planning on enrolling for the spring semester. Additionally, many linebackers play more than one position. Keep that in mind while looking at the position groups. Many things could change at those positions, and this list is an educated guess in the first place.)

DEFENSIVE END
GONE: Chris Walker, Gerald Williams.
BACK: Sophomore Jacques Smith, sophomore Corey Miller, senior Ben Martin, junior Willie Bohannon.
NEW: None.
OUTLOOK: Smith and Miller showed serious potential all season, and Smith delivered plenty of big hits, but both will need a full offseason focused on technique to become solid, everydown SEC ends. Bohannon, a speed rusher, will probably try to add weight and become a more viable everydown option. If not, he’ll at least be a nice third-down rusher off the edge. Martin is an X-factor here for many reasons. The former five-star signee has been a high-character influence on the program for years, but he’s never lived up to his immense billing on the field. His recovery from a summer 2010 Achilles rupture will definitely be one of spring’s biggest stories.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE
GONE: Victor Thomas.
BACK: Senior Malik Jackson, junior Montori Hughes, sophomore Marlon Walls, sophomore Joseph Ayres, sophomore Arthur Jeffery, junior Steven Fowlkes, redshirt freshman Greg Clark.
NEW: None.
OUTLOOK: Jackson, Walls and Hughes — especially if Hughes continues to mature on and off the field — will give coaches a solid building block up the middle. Jackson became an All-SEC tackle after starting the season at end, and Hughes physically resembles many NFL first-round picks. Walls, like Martin, will be watched closely this spring after returning from a summer 2010 Achilles rupture. Ayres gave the Vols an unexpected boost last season, and if he can keep his quickness after an offseason dedicated to adding weight, UT could have a solid backup. Anything the Vols get out of Jeffery, Fowlkes or Clark will simply be a bonus, considering highly touted junior college commitment Maurice Couch is expected to arrive in the summer and compete for a starting spot. Depth at this position should be much better next season, barring a rash of unforeseen roster losses.

STRONGSIDE LINEBACKER
GONE: LaMarcus Thompson.
BACK: Sophomore Greg King, senior Daryl Vereen, redshirt freshman Martaze Jackson, senior Shane Reveiz.
NEW: No one.
OUTLOOK: King, a big, talented player who missed last season with injury problems, will be one of the most important Vols to study this spring. If he rediscovers the form he had at times during a solid freshman season, the Vols will have a solid trio starting at linebacker. If not, coaches will need to shuffle some players to find an SEC-worthy group of starters. Vereen, a former tailback and linebacker, has his size limitations, but he played pretty well late in 2010 and should be a valuable member of the 2011 corps. Jackson is an intriguing young prospect, while Reveiz — who can play all three positions in a pinch — simply isn’t as big as undersized older brother Nick.

MIDDLE LINEBACKER
GONE: Nick Reveiz.
BACK: Senior Austin Johnson, sophomore John Propst, junior Nigel Mitchell-Thornton.
NEW: No one.
OUTLOOK: If you include junior Herman Lathers, who would rather play in the middle if given a choice, the Vols have three good options at Mike — and fourth option Mitchell-Thornton is no slouch, either. Johnson might have a slight edge, even though he spent the second half of last season on the weakside to bolster depth. Propst became a freshman All-SEC player as a backup at Mike. Mitchell-Thornton fell off the map last season after starting some as a freshman, but he’s one of the team’s smartest players and can easily help in a pinch.

WEAKSIDE LINEBACKER
GONE: Savion Frazier.
BACK: Junior Herman Lathers, sophomore Raiques Crump, sophomore Robert Nelson, sophomore Jerod Askew.
NEW: No one.
OUTLOOK: As previously stated, Lathers would rather play in the middle but isn’t the type of young man who would complain about retaining his starting spot on the weakside. Three separate coaching staffs have loved Lathers’ potential and waiting for him to break out, and that started to happen late last season. He’s extremely athletic and a fierce hitter, as evidenced by him simply bulling through former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and others at times last season. He’s also a good blitzer off the edge. Crump — like Propst, a sneaky-good, under-the-radar signee — had a solid freshman season. If Askew ever grows up on and off the field, he could make an impact.

CORNERBACK
GONE: No one.
BACK: Junior Prentiss Waggner, junior Marsalis Teague, sophomore Eric Gordon, senior Anthony Anderson, sophomore Naz Oliver, senior C.J. Fleming.
NEW: Freshman Justin Coleman.
OUTLOOK: Coleman, a smart, talented young prospect, will add to an already OK area for the Vols going forward. Waggner moved from safety and emerged as an All-SEC player at corner, and Teague, Gordon and Anderson all had their moments — though, in fairness, some of those moments weren’t great. Waggner was shut-down good at times, though, and Teague should look much better with a full offseason spent on defense. He moved from offense just a few days before the start of last season’s preseason camp. Gordon is one of the team’s strongest players, pound-for-pound, and Anderson played the best ball of his career late last season. Oliver should be fully recovered from a torn ACL.

SAFETY
GONE: Tyler Wolf.
BACK: Junior Janzen Jackson, sophomore Brent Brewer, junior Rod Wilks, sophomore Dontavis Sapp, redshirt freshman Ted Meline.
NEW: No one.
OUTLOOK: Some would split the safety into two categories — free and strong — but the positions are basically interchangeable in most defenses, including UT’s. The Vols are still clinging to decreasing amounts of hope that highly touted Texas safety prospect Eddrick Loften arrives this week, but it’s looking more and more like that will be delayed until the summer. Still, Jackson and Brewer should be a fine duo. Jackson is widely regarded as one of the SEC’s best, and he’s talented to leap into the All-American picture at some point. Brewer, a former minor league baseball player, should look much different with another full offseason to work on his football technique. At the very least, Jackson an Brewer will be one of the nation’s hardest hitting safety duos.

Contact Wes Rucker at wrucker@247sports.com, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247.

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