The dominant play of defensive tackle Jesse Mahelona in his first season for the Volunteers, during which he had an SEC-best 181/2 tackles for loss on his way to All-America honors, caught a lot of people by surprise--his coaches, SEC opponents, fans back in his home state of Hawaii and even, apparently, himself. "To be honest, I still don't think I'm that good," says the 6'2", 297-pound senior from Kailua-Kona on the Big Island, without specifying his shortcomings. "I'm not saying my self-esteem is low. I just don't think I'm good enough."
If Mahelona needs affirmation of his talent, perhaps he should talk to Dan Brooks, his position coach. Brooks recently rewatched tape of a play against South Carolina last season in which Mahelona flew through the line of scrimmage after the snap, his body practically parallel to the ground, and wrapped up running back Daccus Turman five yards deep in the backfield. It was a turning point in the game: South Carolina, leading 8--0 late in the first half and having driven to the Tennessee six-yard line, had to settle for a field goal attempt, which was missed. Riding the energy of that defensive stop, the Vols surged in the second half to a 43--29 victory. Rewinding the play for a fourth time, Brooks, whose recent prot�g�s include NFL first-round draft picks John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth, remarked, "In 30 years of doing this, I've never seen a guy make plays like this kid."
Mahelona spent two seasons at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Calif. There, despite missing all but two games as a sophomore with a broken ankle, he was rated the No. 1 junior college defensive tackle in the country by Rivals.com. After signing with Tennessee in December 2003, Mahelona enrolled in time for spring practices and quickly earned a starting job. In just his second Division I-A game, a 30--28 win over Florida, Mahelona chased down quarterback Chris Leak for a nine-yard sack. Says Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, "That's when you realized, 'Uh-huh, this one's going to be pretty good.'"
As the 2004 season progressed, Mahelona became an increasingly disruptive force, even as he coped with nagging knee and shoulder injuries. In a 17--13 win over Alabama on Oct. 23, he blew past All-SEC blockers Wesley Britt and Evan Mathis to sack quarterback Spencer Pennington 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage and force a fumble that was recovered by the Volunteers. Two weeks later against Notre Dame he had five tackles for loss. Much like former USC All-America Mike Patterson, a 2005 first-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles, Mahelona is smaller than the prototypical defensive tackle but compensates by emphasizing leverage and balance. "When you get down that low," says Brooks, "it's hard for people to get away."
Mahelona's success has turned him into a celebrity in Kailua-Kona, a town of 25,000. While it's not uncommon for Hawaiians to play college ball on the mainland, they usually end up at Pac-10 schools or elsewhere in the West. Moreover, the overwhelming majority hail from the main island, Oahu. "There's never been anyone from the Big Island to make the type of impact he's made in a conference like the SEC," says Mahelona's coach at Kealakehe High, Sam Papalii, who spent 18 years as an assistant at such schools as Hawaii, UNLV, Iowa State and Arizona. Now orange flags bearing the Tennessee t can be be seen flying from rooftops of Kailua-Kona, and this spring Mahelona spoke at Kealakehe's commencement ceremonies. "I keep in touch with some of my former teachers," says Mahelona, "and they tell me the impact I'm making on peoples' lives.
This fall Mahelona will be making an impact on a defense that has eight starters back from a 10--3 team that won the SEC East. Prominent among those returnees are All-SEC defensive back Jason Allen (123 tackles), defensive end Parys Haralson (seven sacks) and linebacker Omar Gaither (121/2 tackles for loss). And that number doesn't include two former standouts, linebacker Kevin Simon and cornerback Antwan Stewart, who'll return after missing last season with injuries. Also in the mix are defensive tackle Demonte Bolden, a top 2005 signee and one of the stars of Tennessee's spring practices, and heralded incoming freshmen Dee Morley and Adam Myers-White, either of whom could wind up starting at safety.
On the other side of the ball promising sophomore quarterback Erik Ainge, who threw for 17 touchdowns in nine games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury against Notre Dame, is expected to beat out sturdy senior Rick Clausen, the offensive MVP of Tennessee's 38--7 Cotton Bowl win over Texas A&M. Senior Gerald Riggs Jr. will be the Volunteers' primary ballcarrier following a breakthrough season in which he rushed for 1,107 yards, including 182 on only 11 carries against Auburn in the SEC title game. Says Fulmer, "This team might have as much depth on it as any I've ever coached."
That depth plus the momentum of the Cotton Bowl win and a February recruiting class that was ranked No. 1 in the country by scout.com, has Tennessee fans dreaming of their first national championship since 1998. But such expectations have traditionally been a curse in Knoxville. While that '98 team largely flew under the radar, as did Fulmer's past two squads (both of which delivered 10-win seasons), some of his most touted teams wound up being his biggest disappointments. Trips to Florida and LSU in late September loom as early tests. "We'll be in the hunt," says Fulmer. "Now, the hunt for what? A divisional title? Yes. The SEC? Yes. The national championship? We'll see."
Even though Mahelona is ambivalent about his own ability, he's positive about his team's potential to reach the Rose Bowl. "If we don't make it to the national championship game," he says, "then we did something wrong." -- Stewart Mandel