Volunteer backups reporting for action
By: By Beth Rucker, Associated Press Writer
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Tennessee Volunteers’ linebacker Ellix Wilson has tried to be patient.
The junior has played in nearly every game of his college career except for a medical redshirt season but has never started.
“Now coach is giving me a chance,” he said. “Coming in, coach always said everyone needs to learn how to play all three (linebacker) positions so whenever someone goes out you have your chance to step up. I took heed to what he said and here I am.”
Wilson, who will start in place of prolific tackler Rico McCoy, is one of a handful of Volunteer players who will fill the shoes of teammates who were declared academically ineligible for the Outback Bowl because of grades.
The suspensions are most noticeable on the injury-plagued Tennessee defense, which lost McCoy at linebacker, tackle Demonte Bolden and reserve free safety Ricardo Kemp.
Starting linebacker Ryan Karl suffered an elbow injury during the Southeastern Conference championship, but coach Phillip Fulmer said Karl will start at his strongside spot while Wilson shifts inside and All-SEC linebacker Jerod Mayo moves to weakside linebacker as No. 16 Tennessee (9-4) faces No. 18 Wisconsin (9-3) on Tuesday morning.
“That’s our best group,” Fulmer said. “I was a little concerned about where Ryan Karl was, but he had really just a great day and did some tackling full speed and I think we’re going to be fine.”
The defensive line is a different story. Fulmer will depend on Dan Williams and J.T. Mapu, who have shared time at right tackle, and Walter Fisher to make up for Bolden’s absence.
Other options include moving a defensive end inside and playing the nickel package more frequently.
On the offensive side Tennessee is missing wide receiver Lucas Taylor, who led the Vols with 1,000 yards on 73 catches.
Reserve wideout Kenny O’Neal also was suspended for academics.
But quarterback Erik Ainge has a plenty of others to choose from, including regular starters Austin Rogers and Josh Briscoe, sophomore Quintin Hancock and freshmen Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore.
“Obviously anytime you lose a guy like Lucas it’s going to be difficult, but we have guys who can step up,” Ainge said.
Wisconsin safety Shane Carter said Taylor’s absence doesn’t make him feel any better at trying to stop Tennessee’s passing game.
“It’s just like any other team, they’ve got great players behind him waiting to step up,” Carter said. “At this level, everybody’s good.”
The Badgers have done their own shuffle in the backfield to compensate for injured tailback P.J. Hill, who has been hampered by a lower leg bruise for the second half of the season.
Coach Bret Bielema said Hill is 100 percent right now, but won’t start in the Outback Bowl. Hill will share duties with freshman Zach Brown and sophomore Lance Smith.
For Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, the suspensions mean more than the loss of talent on the football field. Cutcliffe said it’s hard emotionally for players and coaches to leave others behind.
“These are guys that aren’t here that (the players) care about … and it hurts,” Cutcliffe said.