Forget sugarplums. I have visions of big, fast, athletic linebackers in Tennessee uniforms dancing in my head.
With every scrimmage story I read, every coaching comment I hear and every starting lineup I see, I get more and more excited about the prospects of 6-foot-3, 245-pound true freshman A.J. Johnson and 6-3, 220-pound freshman Curt Maggitt beginning the season as starters for the Vols alongside senior Austin Johnson and announcing their reign of terror on the rest of the conference.
The first part of that last sentence is going to happen. The second part is just me dreaming and having "it's-three-weeks-until-the-start-of-the-season-and-I'm-getting-excited-enough-to-make-wacky-comments" syndrome.
Gone are the days of playing players simply because they're upperclassmen. Phillip Fulmer rarely played talented freshmen over upperclassmen. As GVX247's Wes Rucker said on last week's podcast, "Kiffin talked about playing freshmen; Dooley's actually doing it." If an underclassman is comparable in talent to a senior, you play the underclassman. Simple as that. It's Football 101. It can become a recruiting tool when you actually do it, and it also benefits your team immediately and down the road.
I know that we're all [me, mostly] will be hoping and heaping ridiculous expectations on the pair of youngsters immediately, but there is at least some hope here. There is a precedent. One particular pie-in-the-sky hope for these two come to mind:
After Mike Shula was fired as Alabama's coach, the Vols tried hard to get in on a couple of kids UA had committed. One of those players was Decatur linebacker Rolando McClain. UT wanted McClain -- like everybody else did -- because he was talented. What I don't think anybody truly grasped was just how brilliant this guy was on the football field. McClain wound up starting for Nick Saban his freshman year in the middle of a complex defense.
There aren't many defensive coaches with the reputation of Saban's. Though I'm sure he probably brought McClain along slowly, Saban said by the end of that first season, McClain was calling all the plays and had a full grasp of the complex scheme. I know we all want to hope that Justin Wilcox's scheme is going to be complex and difficult for offenses to figure out, but will it be much more diverse than Saban's?
Saying these guys are going to be the next Rolo would be unfair. But it's also not out of the realm of possibility to think they could have a similar impact and their careers could eventually take a comparable trajectory. We're not talking about two talentless guys. These are two players everybody in the nation wanted out of high school.
There are times now when, according to coaches, Maggitt and Johnson are going off sheer instincts. Though their heads are swimming, they've normally been talented enough to make up for it and physical enough to still be impressive -- at least in practice situations. That has led to these two young players settling into starting roles where there were once upperclassmen and kids who've been in the program at least a year competing.
So, what does this mean for linebacker depth at UT?
Well, it means we could be in a lot better shape than we originally thought we'd be. That much cannot be argued. When leading returning tackler Herman Lathers went down this offseason with a nasty ankle injury, linebacker because the biggest question on a team that still had its share of crooked punctuation marks. All of a sudden, a corps that had lost two seniors [Nick Reveiz and LaMarcus Thompson] and returned a slew of unproven players just lost its only potential star for at least a month.
The bulk of the spring snaps went to senior Daryl Vereen and sophomore John Propst, each of which were called out by coaches at different times for having a nice couple of weeks. Still, those guys weren't standout performers.
Now, with AJ Johnson and Maggitt seemingly settling in as starters, that pushes Propst and Vereen to second team, and that at least means a couple more able bodies. While we can't exactly guarantee you that spells "quality depth," it at least means we're two bodies deeper because of position battles and not just out of necessity. That also means athletic but often injured Greg King also moves down out of contention to start but still very possibly in the firm rotation.
Players like Raiques Crump, Dontavis Sapp, Nigel Mitchell-Thornton, Christian Harris and others are out there on the depth chart, too, but the emergence of Johnson and Maggitt could mean those guys can continue to be brought along more slowly and can battle for the opportunity to build depth without necessarily being "needed."
Also, don't forget about Lathers. He'll certainly throw a 6-foot, 220-pound wrench into that starting rotation when he returns to the team [hopefully before the Vols head to Gainesville, but at least some time in October...] When the talented junior returns, he may not be 100 percent, but he is the only returning UT linebacker who has displayed the combination of size and athleticism that it takes to be an above-average SEC linebacker.
With Lathers, AJ Johnson, Austin Johnson and Maggitt in the mix for starting snaps, that gives the Vols and Wilcox a lot of flexibility; especially considering Lathers and Austin Johnson have experience playing both inside and out. It also builds competition, and competition makes everybody better.
I think a lot of us are excited to see the freshman combination out on the field, and we're hoping it can make UT a little more dynamic on defense, having superior athletes on the second tier that we haven't seen since Rico McCoy and Jerod Mayo. Turning into a pair of stars a hopeful projection for those two kids. What isn't a projection is this -- regardless of how dynamic those two talented freshmen make us, having them be talented enough and mentally capable to even be in the conversation to start definitely makes the Vols better and deeper. Perhaps that's the biggest reason for optimism.