Spring Position Battles:  Linebackers

Prior to the spring practices, Will and I continue our look through the UT roster to see how the various positions may look.  Armed only with our rank amateur football sense, we give some thoughts and projections on the team as it may look under Lane Kiffin.  Previous positions covered are:

Linebacker is one of the most intriguing positions on a football team to me.  On any given play, a linebacker may have to shed the block of a hulking guard or provide coverage support against a fleet-footed receiver.  The "Mike" is often the field general - the defensive counterpart to the quarterback - ensuring the defensive eleven are in position to make life as difficult as possible for the offense.

Further, the linebackers often have the meanest, nastiest dispositions on the field.  The defensive line may have the dirtiest work, but it's the linebackers who routinely hunt down running backs and quarterbacks for a full-speed, maximum-energy collision.  UT has had its share of such linebackers in the past; replay footage of alums like Al Wilson and Jarod Mayo remind us of just how great it is to be a Tennessee Vol.

Now THIS is Football! (courtesy UTSports.com)

(Watch 1:25-1:27 - one of the best football plays ever.)

It was in the last two years of the Manning era that I really started paying attention to Tennessee football (way out in Wyoming, remember), and my most vivid memories are still of the linebackers of that era.  Watching the defense in 1998 was just like watching a steamroller on the field; you just knew that the offensive line couldn't hold them back.  There was nothing dirty or thuggish about it - just some phenomenally great athletes pushing themselves to their limits.  And winning.


 

The Departed

Adam Myers-White, Ellix Wilson, Nevin McKenzie, were all seniors last season and out of eligibility.  Their names are familiar to you; all three linebackers played prominent roles in the Tennessee defense, particularly last season.  One of the reasons the Tennessee D was such an effective unit last season was the mature, precise play of these three.  I've had my complaints about the Mustang Package and its use of the linebackers in the past (See: UCLA), but any lack of effectiveness from the linebackers was definitely not because they made mistakes.  The departure of these three will leave a huge hole to fill - and huge opportunities for other players to step up in the new era.

The Unknown

Brett Barnes - a Knoxville native - was also a senior last season.  However, he redshirted in 2005 and has one year of eligibility left.  I have not heard anything about him yet and do not know if he will be a part of the 2009 roster.  A practice squad member for his entire career, he does not figure to be a part of the gameday roster in either case.  Yet he has certainly had a better football career than me, and his commitment to the Vols is commendable.

Apart from the seniors, there are 12 linebackers listed on the UT roster (including the incoming players).

Rico McCoy will be one of the two linebacker seniors of next year's roster.  One of four UT juniors who asked for a preliminary evaluation by the NFL, he decided to return for one more year with the Vols.  This is an eminently great move for him and for the Vols; the consummate starter will get one year under the tutelage of Monte Kiffin and Lance Thompson, and should be an early "New Deal" success story by a staff that plugs NFL potential so much.  To Rico, this year is his contract year: success will bring a high draft pick and a Vol Navy-esque boatload of cash.

Oh, and there's this:

Rico McCoy makes a Jeremy Young-sized crater

Yeah, THAT'S a Tennessee linebacker!

Gerald Williams is the other junior, though his UT time has been far more brief.  Initially a DE recruit in 2007, Williams went the JUCO route for academic reasons.  His academic problems continued, as he was practically a gameday decision by the NCAA last fall.  Last season's team difficulties clearly frustrated Williams, as a couple of utterly boneheaded personal foul penalties can attest.  If anybody needs to make a fast impression, it is Williams.  He is a terrific athlete:  quick, big, and mean.  So long as his grades and his temperament hold up, he will find a lot of time on the field to make his case to the NFL scouts (and to give us more sweet linebacker highlights!)

Nick Reveiz is the shortest linebacker on the roster at 5'11".  Normally, that height relegates you to bit duty on the practice squad or on special teams (well, for schools that don't place a priority on special teams, winkwink), but Reveiz managed to land quite a bit of playing time.  He redshirted 2006, but played in all games since then.  He is most known for being a "fireplug" - a short, stocky guy who just doesn't get pushed around.  He's a sure tackler and his low center of gravity helps him hold his own against offensive linemen.

Savion Frazier is another name that isn't the most well-known on the roster, though he's had a decent share of the action.  A true freshman player, he has seen a steadily increasing amount of action in his two years at UT.  And to be honest, he's a guy that those of us outside the progam can't reliably give a prediction on.  He was a four-star recruit as a running back, but was moved to linebacker due to the depth we've had at his position.  I would like to know more about his mental makeup before giving any prediction on him:  is he a wolf?  Does he thrive in the pack mentality that linebackers are known for?  The fall will tell.

LaMarcus Thompson will be a junior next fall, having redshirted the 2006 season.  The Lithonia/Stone Mountain GA native is also a bit shorter than the average 'backer at 6'1" and has spent most of his time with the special teams.  Much like Frazier, we simply have not seen a whole lot of Thompson, largely because of the stout list of accomplished linebackers on the roster.  Like so many others, he has a second chance at a first impression

The Sophomores

As is the case with so many from Fulmer's era, evaluating last year's freshmen linebackers is an exceedingly difficult task.  They simply weren't on the field regularly.  This time, it's hard to blame Fulmer and Chavis - players like McCoy and Wilson clearly deserved their playing time. 

Chris Donald  Keep this name in your memory banks.  A five-star West Tennessee recruit, Donald redshirted the 2007 season partly due to the deep roster at the time (remember that Mayo was present then).  He's big and he's fast, and if his attitude matches his physical gifts, he'll be the kind of guy that Monte would love to send to "get after" the ball carrier.  If you've read Meat Market, you know that Donald was a guy that Orgeron coveted while at Ole Miss (and is probably happy to have lost to Tennessee now).  While projecting players out of this linebacking group is a turkey shoot at this point, I am slowly convincing myself that he'll be a starter in the fall.

Herman Lathers was a Louisiana all-state linebacker in 2007.  He's best suited as a weakside linebacker with his lighter frame (210 lbs.), and is almost built like a run-support safety.  A search for more information on Lathers doesn't reveal anything beyond his recruiting information - a theme that is becoming very common with the youngest returnees on the roster.

Josh Hawkins is another local product.  Hailing from Loudon, Hawkins redshirted the 2007 season.  His metrics are very similar to Lathers - about 6'1", 210ish.  He is also better-suited to be an outside linebacker in a 4-3 but has little information for us to predict his future success.

Rodriguez Wilks may be one of the more interesting linebackers on the roster.  He was originally recruited as a wide receiver, as his 6'1", sub-200 frame and 4.5ish speed seemed better suited for route running than for tangoing in the trenches.  He has since grown to about 220 lbs, which is probably part cause and part effect of the move to linebacker.  I have a feeling his mental makeup will determine his fate; if he has the aggressiveness of a linebacker in him, he'll probably stay on defense.  If not, he may get moved back to wide receiver for a little more depth.

And now, the n00bs.  (Linebackers just love being called n00bs.  Try it sometime, all the while remembering that I am in no way liable for any ensuing events.)

Greg King is a guy that I'm excited for - in about a year.  He's physically well-built for interior linebacker, with a 6'3" frame that can probably hold 240 lbs. without affecting his speed.  The knock on him is his need to play with more discipline and sharper technique.  Since he's coming in the fall, there's really not much time for him to develop those skills and snag a starting position quickly.

However, King is smart.  He's a left-brained guy who's looking at things like computer engineering for his major, which tells me that he's very process-oriented.  Give him a system and a path to success, and he'll follow it to its logical conclusion.  As much as I like tenacity in linebackers, a mind like this is ideal for the Mike - somebody who can direct presnap traffic and set the stage for success.  Additionally, if he has success, he can be a great asset for recruiting in his hometown of Memphis.  I don't see him starting quickly, but I have a lot of hope for his tenure at UT.

Jerod Askew is a "hired gun", so to speak.  He is a very compact, 6'0" 230-pounder with 4.5ish speed who lives for the full-speed, head-on collisions.  A product of Divison 6 Oscar Smith high school in Viriginia, he has had some great tutelage and his technique is in better shape than King, which will probably get him on the field sooner than the Memphis native.  I think he'll be the first incoming freshman to find significant playing time in the fall.

Nigel Mitchell-Thornton is the final linebacker in the new class, and was relatively unnoticed through most of the season.  Another Stone Mountain native, Nigel is better-suited to run-stopping than pass defense at the moment.  Some time working on agility and technique may go a long way, but I don't see a starting spot for him against Western Kentucky.  Still, that's no shame, as few linebackers ever find a starting role on any team in their first year.

Summary

If I were to guess, I'd place McCoy, Williams and Donald as the three listed starters for the 2009 campaign.  McCoy is a no-brainer.  Williams is as physically talented as they come, though my pick is a little dicey when you consider his academic history.  Donald will probably be the first who? WOW!!! player out of this bunch that you haven't heard a lot from last year.  That's why I see him as the third 'backer on the field of three.

There is a lot of experience leaving the team, but there is probably even more potential behind them.  I really like the outlook for linebackers, though it may take a few games for the potential to come into focus.  Let's just hope that it focuses before Florida.

And now, for a little more eye candy:

Al Wilson and Leonard Little (via nathangb4)

 

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