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Deeper, Stronger - The 2012 Position Previews: Linebackers; Johnson, Maggitt, Lathers And...?

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A.J. Johnson is poised for a monster year at linebacker for the Vols, but who will help him out as UT transitions to a 3-4 defense under new coordinator Sal Sunseri?
A.J. Johnson is poised for a monster year at linebacker for the Vols, but who will help him out as UT transitions to a 3-4 defense under new coordinator Sal Sunseri?

An argument I have with some of my buddies who are fans of rival teams that never fails to get my blood pressure up goes something like this:

Me: "I'm excited about this season. Tennessee should be getting back to being competitive really soon. Excuses are wearing thin. We've got really good players in place now."

Random rival fan: "Are they 'really good' players, or are they 'Tennessee good?' Are you romanticizing them because you just forgot what having really good players is like?"

Me: "I think I know the difference between really good players and players I am trying to will to be good. We've got some players everybody would like to have."

Rival fan: Snarky comment.

**argument ensues**

I've given this a lot of thought, actually. Have we forgotten what really good players look like? I don't think so. I think we all have seen the ESPN Classic games or remember the Vols of the '90s. We know we don't look -- or play -- like that quite yet. But we've also seen the bottom-of-the-barrel UT teams of the past five years. We know we aren't that team, either.

The bottom line is we've got a bunch of players who are good, solid SEC players and several guys who really shouldn't be playing in this league. But the Vols now have a stable of really incredible players who could start for anybody in the country -- more than what they've had in recent history. Those guys are present at wide receiver, quarterback, tight end and ... linebacker.

Nobody disputes this when I bring it up. Though a lot of my Alabama buddies wouldn't trade Nico Johnson, Trey DePriest and those guys for ours, they know superior talent when they see it -- especially on defense. And there's no doubt the freshman seasons of A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt [freshman All-Americans, both] impressed everybody ... not just those in the Big Orange Nation.

There's also rising fifth-year senior Herman Lathers, who missed all of last season with a nasty leg injury but looked pretty good this spring and expects to be 100 percent when Fall drills start. But what's beyond that? If UT gets stellar production out of Johnson, Maggitt, Lathers and junior "Jack" Jacques Smith, the Vols still need some able bodies to back them up.

UT welcomed newcomers LaTroy Lewis, Justin King and Kenneth Bynum from the 2012 recruiting class, but will they be able to count on freshmen? Who already on campus can provide depth? Let's look in the Rocky Top Tennessee 2012 magazine for answers:

The biggest question mark facing Tennessee’s defense in 2012 is whether it has enough quality linebackers to make this schematic jump [to a 3-4 defense]. Securing commitments from two of the nation’s top high school linebackers – Dalton Santos and Otha Peters – would have helped matters, but those two decommitted in the week before National Signing Day and signed with Texas and Arkansas, respectively. Then, redshirt freshman Christian Harris tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the spring, and UT was left even shallower.

What the Vols have left are four quality linebackers and a lot of unknowns.

The biggest unknown among the top group is just how recovered will rising senior Herman Lathers be from a nasty leg injury that cost him all of 2011. The Louisiana native was UT’s best linebacker heading into last year, but it’s uncertain whether he will get all of his speed back. His spring was certainly very encouraging as he played through some lingering pain and enjoyed stellar production, but keeping healthy over the course of the season is another concern.


The "new" position the Vols will incorporate this year is the "Jack" linebacker, which, in the 3-4 defense, is a type of stand-up linebacker/defensive end hybrid who is essentially a pass-rushing specialist. Junior Jacques Smith will try to erase a forgettable 2011 at the new position. Last year, Smith struggled with his technique and played too out-of-control, leading to a disappointing 35 tackles when UT needed him to lead. Still, Smith did have eight tackles for a loss and at 6’2", 242, still possesses the speed to disrupt in the backfield. He was recruited by many of the top programs in the nation – schools such as Alabama, LSU, and Georgia – to play linebacker.

If Smith struggles to learn the Jack, Sunseri believes he has a budding star in rising sophomore Jordan Williams, who had a breakout spring and should vie for playing time this year. Like Smith, Williams was a defensive end last year, and he is learning the position. At 6’5", 255, Williams is the perfect size for the position and should grow into a nice player there during his career and maybe this year.

Though UT doesn’t have much depth at inside linebacker, converted fullback Channing Fugate (6’1", 225) and rising juniors Greg King (6’2", 240) and John Propst (6’0", 225) possess the size to play the position. Fugate had a predictably quiet spring as he attempts to follow in graduated senior Austin Johnson’s footsteps in the position switch and is probably behind Propst because of it at this point. King, on the other hand, enjoyed a healthy, productive spring after missing basically the past two seasons with various injuries. The junior from Memphis burst onto the scene under Lane Kiffin looking like he’d be a longtime starter for the Vols, but injuries stunted his development. If he can remain healthy, King has the ability to be a really good player for UT.

Special teams standouts Dontavis Sapp and Raiques Crump enter their junior seasons trying to get into the mix at outside linebacker. While Sapp has enjoyed more playing time on defense through his short career, it was Crump who played better this spring, and both may find themselves getting reps out of necessity. Nigel Mitchell-Thornton has played downs in the past and can provide depth. Converted defensive end Willie Bohannon began his last spring practice at Jack but also got some work at strongside ’backer as coaches searched for a place for him. Toward the end of the spring, coaches believed that Bohannon would almost certainly be in the rotation at strongside linebacker and may be an eye-opener at the position.

Other players like Nigel Mitchell-Thornton were mentioned in passing. While the names may be familiar, we certainly aren't used to depending on them to be playmakers. Can they be? Who will be? I know we all believe A.J., Maggitt and Lathers can play. We believe Jock can, too. But there are a ton of question marks after that, and the Vols will employ one more linebacker a lot this year on the field at once.

So, what do you guys think? Who is going to give UT quality snaps? Let's discuss -- and remember, buy a magazine and see more of what we think. You can get the Rocky Top Tennessee 2012 print edition for $19.99, the Kindle version for $9.99, or the ebook (a downloadable PDF) for $7.99.