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Tennessee Vols National Signing Day Preview: Linebackers

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Everything you need to know about Tennessee's linebacker recruiting.

Legion of Boom
Legion of Boom
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

What Tennessee Wants Out of the Linebacker Position

Before we get to recruiting, let's continue our examination of what defensive coordinator John Jancek is trying to do with the Tennessee defense. Earlier this week, we took a look at how Tennessee's defensive line tries to get one-on-one matchups on the weakside of the formation by aligning the weakside defensive tackle and defensive end next to each other across from the weakside offensive guard and tackle. We also discussed how that leaves the nose tackle and strongside defensive end in a two-on-four matchup with the other three offensive linemen (center, guard, and tackle) plus the tight end. For a concrete look at how that works, let's switch gears and talk not about the players, but about the gaps between the players on the offensive line.

In a standard offensive line set1 as seen below, there are seven total gaps for which the defensive front seven must account, labeled with the letters A through D. Starting in the middle of the formation and going toward the strongside, the "A" gap is between the center and the guard, the "B" gap is between the guard and the tackle, the "C" gap is between the tackle and the tight end, and the "D" gap is anything outside the tight end. The weakside looks exactly the same, only there is one fewer gap because there is one fewer player (A, B, and C). In order to defend the run, Tennessee's 4-3 Under assigns each defensive player responsibility for one gap. This is called a "single-gapping defense" and allows defenders to play more aggressively off the snap, because each player is only responsible for penetrating and controlling a single running or rush lane. In contrast, a "two-gapping defense" like the 3-4 made famous by the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens asks some players to be responsible for more than one gap, which can cause defenders to play hesitantly for fear of making the wrong choice.

For a regular running play, each defender fills the gap to which he is assigned: the defensive line occupies the strongside "C" gap (defensive end), strongside "A" gap (nose tackle), weakside "B" gap (defensive tackle), and weakside "C" gap (defensive end). That leaves three remaining gaps to be filled by the linebackers: the strongside linebacker has responsibility for the "D" gap, the middle linebacker has responsibility for the strongside "B" gap, and the weakside linebacker has responsibility for the weakside "A" gap. If every man takes care of his assignment, there aren't any holes for the running back to get through, and the running play is unsuccessful, barring an outstanding individual effort. However, if a player fails to his job, it can open a hole that makes the entire defense look foolish. For example, look at the weakside defensive end: because he has responsibility for the holding the "C" gap, the weakside defensive end must be careful not to let a running back get past his outside shoulder and into the secondary. If he crashes down the line of scrimmage on an inside run fake, there isn't anyone left to beat until the safeties or cornerbacks can come up to make the play.

The three linebackers in Tennessee's 4-3 Under each have slightly different responsibilities:

  • The strongside linebacker usually lines up in a 9-technique on the outside shoulder of the tight end. For running plays, the strongside linebacker has outside containment and forces the run back into the middle of the defense. For passing plays, the strongside linebacker usually has initial coverage on the tight end and in the flat zones. Because the strongside linebacker is asked to play on the line of scrimmage, he must be large and strong enough to hold up against offensive linemen, while retaining the speed to rush the passer.
  • The middle linebacker is the quarterback of the defense, making sure that the defense is correctly aligned prior to the snap, and calling out any adjustments or audibles. For running plays, the middle linebacker fills the "B" gap on the strongside, and takes the first running back out of the backfield for other running plays. The middle linebacker must be a heady, intelligent player who diagnoses the offensive play call and arrives at the point of attack with a bad attitude. With proper support from the strongside and weakside linebackers, the middle linebacker doesn't need to have speed to burn, but must have good size and short area quickness.
  • The weakside linebacker is the fastest and usually the smallest linebacker on the field. For running plays, the weakside linebacker has responsibility for the weakside "A" gap, but often flows to the point of attack as the unblocked man. The weakside linebacker must have the speed and agility to hold up in pass coverage, and against spread schemes, must be quick enough to chase down running backs, wide receivers, and quarterbacks across the field. If the strongside linebacker is a hybrid defensive lineman, the weakside linebacker is a hybrid safety.

Previewing the 2015 Linebackers

The Vols are pretty well set at two out of the three linebacker position, with rising junior Jalen Reeves-Maybin turning in a stellar debut season at weakside linebacker and rising redshirt senior Curt Maggitt returning from injury to post fantastic numbers at strongside linebacker. At middle linebacker, starter A.J. Johnson had a fantastic senior season cut short by criminal accusation that has yet to be settled, with his NFL future hanging in the balance.

Returning Players

Name Year Height Weight Position Games Played (Career)
Games Started (Career)
Tackles TFLs Sacks INT FF
Curt Maggitt RS Senior 6'3 251 Strong 33 27 48 15 11 - 1
Chris Weatherd Senior 6'4 225 Strong 13 1 12 3 2.5 - -
Kenny Bynum RS Junior 6'1 243 Middle 11 1 5 - - - -
Justin King RS Junior 6'2 245 13 0 2 - - - -
Jalen Reeves-Maybin Junior 6'1 230 Weak 24 13 101 11 2 1 -
Jakob Johnson Sophomore 6'4 240 Middle 12 2 14 - - - -
Colton Jumper Sophomore 6'2 227 Middle 1 0 - - - - -
Elliott Berry Sophomore 6'0 208 Weak 9 0 - - - - -
Cortez McDowell Sophomore 6'1 215 Weak 13 0 19 - - - -
Dillon Bates RS Freshman 6'3 222 Weak 4 0 6 - - - -
Gavin Bryant RS Freshman 6'0 236 Middle - - - - - - -

Players already on campus from the 2015 class

Name Hometown Height Weight Position 247 Position Ranking 247 Composite Stars
Darrin Kirkland, Jr.
Indianapolis, IN 6'2 235 Middle 5 0.9271 4

Players expected to sign Wednesday

Name Hometown Height Weight Position 247 Position Ranking 247 Composite Stars
Quart'e Sapp Alpharetta, GA 6'1.5 200 Weak 14 0.9077 4
Austin Smith Buford, GA 6'3.5 235 Strong 41 0.8631 3

What to Expect

Last year, the linebacker position consisted of middle linebacker A.J. Johnson and two well thought of but unknown quantities with strongside linebacker Curt Maggit returning from injury and weakside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin stepping into a larger role. This year, the script has been flipped, with Maggitt and Reeves-Maybin penciled in as definite starters at the strong- and weakside linebacker and the competition to replace A.J. Johnson wide open. JUCO transfer Chris Weatherd was a one-dimensional pass rusher last year backing up Maggitt at strongside linebacker, but began to come into his own by the end of the season. Rising sophomore Cortez McDowell moved down to weakside linebacker from the safety position and flashed potential in a limited number of plays and on special teams. He'll likely battle for the primary backup job behind Reeves-Maybin with another member of the 2014 class, Dillon Bates, who had his freshman year cut short by injury. Elliott Berry contributed on special teams and never really seemed to find a comfortable place in the lineup.

At strongside linebacker, Tennessee landed three-star Austin Smith from Buford, Georgia, where he was a teammate of Vols' defensive tackle commit Quay Picou on the powerhouse Buford High football team, a perennial Georgia playoff contender. Don't be fooled by his modest star rating -- Smith had more than 18 offers from major programs including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and LSU. At 6'3.5 and 235 pounds, Smith has the size to play either strongside or middle linebacker, but with a logjam developing at middle linebacker, he'll probably find himself backing up Maggitt and Weatherd. It's also possible that Smith could find himself competing against raw but ferocious linebacker Jakob Johnson, if coaches decide to move Johnson from middle to strongside linebacker to make better use of his pass rushing ability.

At weakside linebacker, the Vols received a late commitment from four star linebacker Quart'e Sapp, a speedy but undersized player from Alpharetta, Georgia. Sapp is an interesting player with size and speed more akin to a safety prospect than to an outside linebacker. His recruitment demonstrates that head coach Butch Jones and defensive coordinator John Jancek are continuing to adapt the defensive scheme to match up with modern spread offenses -- Sapp is both faster and more agile than several of Tennessee's defensive back recruits under former coach Derek Dooley. Sapp will be thrown into competition with McDowell and Bates for playing time behind starter Reeves-Maybin, but he may need a year in the weight room to hold up to the rigors of the SEC schedule.

At middle linebacker, four star linebacker and consensus top five linebacker Darrin Kirkland committed to the Vols and enrolled in January. Kirkland, from Indianapolis, Indiana, committed to Tennessee after decommitting from Michigan during Brady Hoke's final days as head coach. At 6'2 and 235 pounds, Kirkland is a thickly built thumper with ideal size for the position and surprising quickness. According to early reports, he has a photographic memory and near-perfect recall of the playbook. Kirkland will compete with sophomore Jakob Johnson and redshirt junior Kenny Bynum for the starting middle linebacker position, but Johnson has struggled with learning the playcalls and adjustments, and Bynum lacks ideal physical characteristics.

1. This particular set, with splitbacks and the quarterback under center, is a formation used by pro-style offenses like Georgia and LSU.