Tennessee Stat Book
When Ryan Karl first arrived on Tennessee's campus in 2003, he was simply trying to get better as a running back.
Five years later, Karl is a linebacker. A pretty good one, at that.
The summer before his senior year at Battle Ground Academy in Nashville, Karl came to Knoxville for UT's annual summer football camp.
"I came up here as a running back," Karl said, "just tried to get some pointers on how to be a running back."
What Tennessee's coaches saw that June and what they'll see Saturday when the 19th-ranked Vols host Vanderbilt for a 2 p.m. kickoff hasn't changed all that much.
Karl, who has played in 45 consecutive games, is still an athlete who's motor is tough to turn off.
During his trip to UT's camp, Karl impressed then-running backs coach Woody McCorvey with his intensity.
McCorvey, in turn, sent Karl to work with the defense, where coordinator John Chavis and defensive backs coach Larry Slade worked the rising senior at safety.
"Got real excited about what we saw in camp," Chavis said. "We knew watching him he didn't mind hitting, he didn't mind the contact. You take a good athlete that will hit and enjoys contact, then they've got a chance to be a good player."
Later that fall, Catholic High School coach Mark Pemberton saw how good Karl was first hand.
The Irish defeated BGA in the regular season only to watch Karl rush for 269 yards in a rematch to claim the Division II championship.
"The first time we played them, they didn't give him the ball much and I wondered why," Pemberton said recently. "Second time we played them, they gave him the ball just about every snap and he had a heck of a day against us."
A few days after his camp appearance, Karl got a letter from Tennessee offering him a scholarship.
And it didn't take long for Karl - a lifelong Volunteers fan descended from lifelong Volunteers fans - to bite.
"I had told myself no matter who offered me, it would be Tennessee," Karl said. "But since it was my first offer, I was excited about it. I said, 'Yeah' at the drop of a hat."
The Vols knew they wanted Karl, they just didn't know where.
At first it was safety, but eventually Karl made the transition to strongside linebacker, perhaps the most challenging position in UT's defense.
Difficult because not only is the strongside linebacker responsible for making checks and calls, he also finds himself in pass coverage quite often.
"You look for a guy who's got the skills to go out and cover one-on-one. When we've been at our best, we've had guys out there that could do that, that we didn't have to sub for him," Chavis said. "He's done a tremendous job being that kind of athlete for us."
With a nod to Karl's athletic ability fellow linebacker Jerod Mayo put it a different way.
"He's the brains of the operation," said Mayo, UT's leading tackler this season.
Karl's 2007 season hasn't been the greatest. Or at least off to the greatest start.
After suffering a back injury during offseason workouts, Karl had just 13 tackles in UT's first three games and didn't have a single solo tackle against either Arkansas State or Georgia the next two weeks.
But against South Carolina, he posted a career-high 12 stops and a key-second half interception. He was involved in seven tackles last Saturday against Arkansas.
For the season, he leads the Vols with seven pass break-ups and his 64 tackles rank third on the team behind Mayo and weakside linebacker Rico McCoy.
"It's good to see him get back into a situation where he's healthy," Chavis says. "He missed a lot of time in the fall and you hate to say it, but he didn't play well early. But he's gotten back to the top of his game."
So has Tennessee's defense.
Since allowing 510 yards and 41 points to Alabama last month, Tennessee's defense has helped position the Vols for a spot in the SEC championship game against No. 1 LSU.
"I'm still not where I want to be, but I feel like I'm getting better week to week," Karl says. "It's nice to know I've been able to turn it around. It's nice to know as a team we're in this championship hunt right now."
And, no doubt, to get one of the highest compliments a player can get from UT coach Phillip Fulmer.
"To me, Ryan's one of those ultimate guys," Fulmer said. "A Tennessee guy."
Drew Edwards covers University of Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274.