A couple weeks ago SB Nation's 2011 Season Preview covered the Vols (exceptional work from Bill Connelly here) and took a look at ranking linebackers. There's some advanced math at both of those links, so your mileage may vary, but what is clear is that the Vol LBs struggled to get any pressure on the quarterback: Herman Lathers had 2.5 sacks, Daryl Vereen had one, and that's it boys and girls.
Anyone who watched the Vols over the last two seasons knows how much work Nick Reveiz did in getting the defense lined up right (or as right as possible...), and he led the team in tackles by a mile last season (108 for Reveiz, followed by Lathers at 75). But Reveiz had no sacks and only six TFLs, further proof that the Vol LBs struggled behind the line of scrimmage last year. It's probably more accurate to say they were never really back there - only Justin Wilcox knows this for sure, but given the wide chasm between our preseason visions of his Multiple 40 and the on-field result last season, I think most will agree that Wilcox probably implemented a very, very small percentage of his defense last year. Unlike the Clawfense, the glory of which we saw with our own eyes, you get the impression that most of what Justin Wilcox really wants to do is still a mystery.
But is that really going to change this fall?
The secondary will have a ton of options but also a ton of youth. The front four will also rely heavily on at least one new face in a key position, needing Maurice Couch to be a star right away. However, you also have established playmakers in both units: Malik Jackson on the line, Janzen Jackson and Prentiss Waggner in the secondary.
Meanwhile at linebacker, Nick Reveiz is gone, along with LaMarcus Thompson and Savion Frazier, and Herman Lathers is out indefinitely with an injury. A unit that struggled to be a positive factor at all last year - this despite the best efforts of a player like Reveiz, whose intangible leadership qualities will be very difficult to replace - returns almost zero quality experience.
It's a sign of the continual struggle the program faces that we have a question like this all the way down at number seven, but there is still so much uncertainty and so much room to grow left with this team. For the defense, the fastest growth will come in finding the best players and putting them at their best positions at linebacker. So who are these guys?
If you're doing that thing where you envision all the pieces coming together in 2012 and all of our young talent maturing rapidly, then you'd probably say that this time next year we'll be looking at A.J. Johnson in the middle with Herman Lathers and Curt Maggitt on the outside. If you've read here before at all you know that I'm all for optimism, but realism would quickly point out that none of those three guys are likely to hear their name called as a starter on September 3 of this year against Montana.
With Lathers out, Austin Johnson emerges as the surest choice. One of the few seniors on the roster, Johnson had 44 tackles mostly backing up Reveiz in the middle. He could play outside, but much of that will probably depend on how fast the other Johnson develops. A.J. was rated as one of the ten best ILB prospects in the Class of 2011, and it may very well be that as soon as the Vols feel like they can trust him in the middle, they'll move Austin back to the outside. Will A.J. earn the trust of the coaching staff before Herman Lathers returns from injury? I've said before that if Maurice Couch is the most important newcomer in the short term, A.J. Johnson might be the most important newcomer long term...but Lathers' injury and the opportunity to slide Austin over have made A.J.'s maturation process much more important right now.
The other option in the middle is sophomore John Propst, he of 14 total tackles last year. But again, the injury to Lathers means it's very possible that Propst could be your starter at MLB in the month of September.
Daryl Vereen was the third starter in the Orange & White Game, he of 18 total tackles last year. If the Vols leave Austin Johnson at MLB, Vereen will almost certainly start the year at one OLB spot. The other spot is full of potential but little else: there's Greg King, who's had a hard time staying healthy. And there's Maggitt - could be a defensive end, could be an outside linebacker, but is also a freshman either way.
What's unique about the LB position is that there are a couple of guys - Greg King and Nigel Mitchell-Thornton - who saw significant action in Monte Kiffin's defense in 2009, but failed to make the same impact last season. Again, King was injured...but he was 13th on the team in tackles in 2009 but 26th in 2010. NMT was 22nd in tackles in 2009 but 28th in 2010. The Vols may not need either in a starting role this fall, but we've at least seen them be serviceable in the past, and both will almost certainly see the field at some point this fall.
There are additional options - Raiques Crump played in eleven games last year, and Christian Harris could also see the field. The key question is, at the end of the year how many different combinations of starting lineups are we going to see at LB? How soon can the Vols get the look they want on the field? And how soon can those guys handle more of what Justin Wilcox wants to throw at them? It could be a rocky road going from something like Vereen-Propst-Austin this September to Lathers-A.J.-Maggitt next year...but the sooner the Vols get those guys, or anyone else, to step up, the better Tennessee's defense will be for both the present and the future.