Tennessee suffered its first setback of fall camp when defensive tackle Chase Nelson was ruled out for the season Thursday. The junior injured his left knee during Tuesday’s practice.
Nelson will undergo season-ending surgery next week to repair a ruptured patella tendon after an MRI Wednesday revealed the damage. He played in just four games last season before suffering a serious wrist injury.
Nelson was being counted on to provide depth in a position of concern for UT.
“It’s a tough loss for us,” UT coach Phillip Fulmer said following Thursday’s practice at Haslam Field. “I feel kind of sorry for him because he’s had one thing after another.”
The loss forces two unproven players to the forefront: sophomore Victor Thomas and freshman Donald Langley. Each is trying to establish himself as one of UT’s top four defensive tackles, as Nelson nearly had done.
Thomas and Langley have a chance to take an early lead in the competition for Nelson’s spot in Saturday’s full-scale scrimmage, the first of fall camp.
“It’s a really big day for us to step up and show the coaches that we’re capable,” said Thomas, who played in two games last season.
Senior Demonte Bolden and junior Dan Williams are the projected starters followed by senior Walter Fisher, who is expected to be the top reserve.
Then, there’s that fourth spot vacated by Nelson.
Defensive tackles coach Dan Brooks spoke highly of Langley’s offseason effort, calling him one of the team’s hardest workers. Other than that, there’s not much to go on.
Langley missed the first two days of practice to be with his mother who was dealing with a “significant medical condition,” according to Fulmer.
Now, Langley is working his way through the NCAA mandated acclimation period in shorts and shoulder pads. Saturday’s scrimmage will be his first practice in full pads.
“We’ll find out a lot about Donald Langley on Saturday to see if he has improved as much as we think he has,” Brooks said.
As for Thomas, Brooks said his consistency and speed need to improve in order for him to be counted on.
Junior defensive end Andre Mathis will slide inside to provide some depth at tackle. Brooks described Mathis as a player who gives great effort but far from a finished product.
“He’s got to buy in and take coaching and he doesn’t play well with his hands right now,” Brooks said of Mathis, who signed with UT as a linebacker in 2005.
Brooks seemed mostly pleased, although not satisfied, with Bolden and Williams.
“I think they have made progress,” Brooks said. “They’re a whole lot different than a year ago because they’ve played a lot of football.
“We were so inexperienced last year.”
Brooks knows he could be facing that scenario again, especially if the injuries don’t stop with Nelson.
“It happens. We know that,” Brooks said. “Defensive tackle is a place where you can’t have enough (depth).”
ape Talk: After reviewing the tape of Wednesday’s scrimmage, Fulmer said he was pleased with several of his speediest players.
“Our two safeties played really well,” Fulmer said, referring to Demetrice Morley and Eric Berry. “Our top four receivers played really well.”
That would be Austin Rogers, Josh Briscoe, Gerald Jones and Lucas Taylor.
Offensive coordinator Dave Clawson said he was particularly impressed with Taylor, who didn’t practice this spring because of a handful of nagging injuries
“I’m really happy that Lucas Taylor is healthy,” Clawson said. “It’s been fun to work with him. He’s a good player.
“He works hard at it and he’s really smart. There’s no question he gave us a little something extra we didn’t have in the spring.”
Install Info: Clawson said UT has installed approximately 90 percent of its new offense. That’s at a lightning pace compared to the slow and steady approach the Vols took in spring practice.
Clawson said all that’s left this preseason is to install specialty packages, such as short-yardage and goalline.
“We wanted to throw a lot in early and see what we’re good at,” Clawson said. “I don’t want to say we’re handling it great but I’m really pleased with it.
“It’s exceeded my expectations how much carryover we’ve had.”
Clawson attributes the carryover to his players’ dedication in voluntary summer workouts.
Once the complete offense is installed and evaluated, which should take about a week, Clawson said he’ll start identifying what the Vols do best and create a more succinct offense for the season.
Slowed and Stopped: Guard Darius Myers admitted he had an advantage Wednesday during the Tennessee Drill when he lined up across from fellow sophomore Ben Martin, one of UT’s speediest defensive ends.
The 240-pound Martin’s game is all but predicated on speed, which doesn’t help when the 315-pound Myers lines up in the Tennessee Drill. As you might expect, Myers won convincingly.
“He’s pretty fast off the edge,” Myers said. “You don’t have to worry about speed (in the Tennessee Drill).”
Following practice, Myers couldn’t help but smile.
“It was real fun to get out there and get some contact in,” he said. “I’ve got a headache right now so I’m still feeling good about myself.”