A.J. Johnson the manchild will be back to anchor a linebacking corps that new DC Sal Sunseri hopes to mold into one of the conference's best like he did at Alabama.
THE DIRECTOR: First-year defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri will coach inside linebackers and have a graduate assistant handle the outside backers. Sunseri spent the last three years as assistant head coach and linebackers coach under Nick Saban for Tennessee's top rival Alabama, where he won two national championships.
By most accounts, Sunseri was a coup for the Vols and Derek Dooley's top choice. Prior to going to Tuscaloosa, Sunseri coached under John Fox for the Carolina Panthers and is highly respected in the business as a developer of talent and as a recruiter. He has 27 years of coaching experience and helped recruit and mold UA's linebacking corps into arguably the best in the country over the past three seasons. He inherits some quality young talent at UT and will be tasked with upgrading the talent at the position over the next couple of recruiting classes as well.
THE CAST: 6-0, 220 Sr. Herman Lathers; 6-2, 220 Jr. Dontavis Sapp; 6-1, 235 Sr. Nigel Mitchell-Thornton; 6-3, 245 So. A.J. Johnson; 6-0, 225 Jr. John Propst; 6-2, 235 Jr. Greg King; 6-1, 220 Jr. Raiques Crump; 6-2, 235 Fr. Christian Harris; 6-3, 215 So. Curt Maggitt; 6-1, 250 Jr. Channing Fugate; 6-2, 255 Jr. Jacques Smith; 6-2, 254 Sr. Willie Bohannon; 6-5, 265 Sr. Steven Fowlkes; 6-5, 240 So. Jordan Williams.
The Vols desperately needed some big hits in this year's linebacker recruiting. Instead, they took a couple of big hits with the departures of Dalton Santos (Texas) and Otha Peters (Arkansas). But the cupboard isn't bare in Knoxville. Some of the team's best athletes play the position, and though a couple of players who may start will be largely unproven, there is some quality potential. What we know is Johnson and Maggitt are superstars in the making, and they are both tailor-made for the 3-4. We also know that Smith was being recruited by Alabama and LSU to play the "Jack" linebacker, so there's a ton of excitement that he'll live up to that potential. If Lathers has recovered from his injury-plagued junior season, the Vols are set with their starters, and all of a sudden, depth looks OK with guys like King and Harris. What UT doesn't want is to be forced into starting one of those guys right now. Lathers is a key, and so is quality depth. That needs to be built immediately.
Coming soon: Kenneth Bynum and LaTroy Lewis will be arriving on campus in August.
OFFSEASON BUZZ: The ol' position switcharoo has happened already to an extent. We know Smith is the Jack starter, and -- as always -- he has been a monster in the offseason weight program. But he was perhaps the team's biggest on-field disappointment last year and really needs a good spring learning a new position for which he's better-suited. Also at the Jack position -- which is a pass-rushing, stand-up defensive end/linebacker hybrid -- Bohannon and Fowlkes will look to salvage the final year of their UT careers. Both seem equipped to handle the spot from a size standpoint. Williams also can move there and probably will. As for the middle, converted fullback Fugate will try to transition to defense as easily as Daniel Hood did last year. If so, having a jumbo athlete like him in the middle will be big, and Austin Johnson was able to do it so maybe he can. Finally, the buzz surrounding Lathers has been positive. Though he isn't 100 percent, there is some hope he'll be able to shrug off his injury issues and be able to play and possibly be the kind of disruptive force he has shown flashes of being before. Same for King, who is finally healthy and chomping at the bit to live up to the expectations the Kiffin regime heaped on him. Also, though he's not listed, there are at least some discussions about putting Brent Brewer at outside linebacker. That may be something intriguing to look for leading up to next season.
THE PLOT THICKENS [THREE SPRING STORYLINES]:
- Adapting To The 3-4. You can put this storyline on all three defensive sections, but it fits nowhere better than linebacker, where the Vols have two stars on the rise in Johnson and Maggitt, who have to kind of re-tool the things that made them successful last year. In actuality, transitioning to the 3-4 isn't just a complete overhaul. There is just more diversity of sets and additional responsibilities, and I fully expect UT to give some 4-3 base looks as well. But mixing and matching and figuring out who goes best where and who can be smart enough and good enough to slide into situational positions is going to be huge for this young defense. That's the reason why it was a big gamble for Dooley to hire Sunseri and also the reason why having such a brilliant defensive mind is comforting.
- Salvaging Careers. This is another massive storyline to me. Included in this group, you've got two potential stars who've been hampered by myriad injuries in Lathers and King. Then, you have two seniors who've disappointed their entire careers when it comes to consistency and being entrenched in the rotation in Bohannon and Fowlkes. Truth be told, UT is depending on at least two of these players to be better-than-serviceable contributors to the rotation. Lathers actually NEEDS to start if at all possible. I believe Lathers' health is one of the three biggest keys to the success of this defense along with Smith's maturity and Sentimore's ability.
- The Maturation of Jacques. I don't care what anybody says -- I'm right when I say what I'm about to say: Smith is the most talented player on UT's entire defense ... more talented than Johnson, more talented than Maggitt, more talented than Randolph. When the light comes on -- whether it's in Knoxville or in the NFL -- mouths will drop. Smith was a tad undersized to be playing defensive end, and he admittedly freelanced his way to a disappointing season last year. Now, he will play a Jack linebacker position he's best-suited for, and he will be able to pin his ears back and go after the quarterback. How Jacques goes, the UT defense will go this year. He is the key.
CLOSING CREDITS: I'm very nervous about this spot. I fear that Johnson and Maggitt will possibly lose something going to a different defense. I'm afraid we don't have the quality depth to keep four solid linebackers on the field at all times. And I think defense was going to be a strength. But I have faith in Sunseri, and I believe he will get the best out of UT's best players on that side of the ball. That's why this spring is vital to the success of this unit. Everybody who should start on defense -- and especially at linebacker -- is already on campus with the possible exception of Daniel McCullers and maybe one of the freshman DBs. There is time to learn and room for mistakes on the field this spring, and getting those reps will be valuable. We should really have a good idea how the linebacker rotation is going to look by mid-April.
Missed the other installments? Catch up here.
- March 23: Defensive line
- March 22: Offensive line
- March 21: Wide receivers
- March 20: Running backs
- March 19: Quarterbacks