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Middle Linebacker or Nickelback, Which is More Important for the Vols?

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With offenses spreading out and using more wide receivers, does that make the nickel cornerback position more important than middle linebacker?

Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

One of the defining factors of Butch Jones since he took over as Tennessee's head football coach in December 2012 has been an environment of competition surrounding his team. For his first two seasons, that competition was most visible at quarterback. Now with Joshua Dobbs established as the team's leader on offense, that sense of competition is being felt at other positions.

With the departures of seniors A.J. Johnson and Justin Coleman, both the middle linebacker and nickel cornerback position for the Vols is wide open this spring.

Due to the legal issues that arose involving Johnson near the end of the regular season, a couple players already have experience at middle linebacker from last season. Jakob Johnson and Kenny Bynum both played snaps there last season, and Bynum has carried that momentum into the spring.

"He understands where everybody is supposed to be. That's going to be his edge," Tennessee linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen said about Bynum after a midweek practice. "He knows how to speak the language of the Mike linebacker."

Redshirt freshmen Dillon Bates and Gavin Bryant are the main two linebackers competing with Bynum for the vacant middle linebacker position, and sophomore Colton Jumper is also seeing some action there.

In a traditional 4-3 defense, the middle linebacker often serves as the quarterback of the defense, lining up the other two linebackers and the four defensive linemen, making sure everyone knows their assignments. However, since a large portion of college football teams like to run more spread out offenses, many teams have moved their base defense from the 4-3 to a nickel defense, using five defensive backs and only two linebackers.

So how important is the middle linebacker position to the Vols?

Last season, the Vols typically had Johnson and Jalen Reeves-Maybin as the main linebackers on the field and would move defensive end/linebacker Curt Maggitt to linebacker whenever they moved into a 4-3 scheme. Reeves-Maybin and Maggitt both return for the 2015 season, and with a bevvy of defensive ends joining the team this offseason, Maggitt figures to see more time at linebacker than defensive end.

Both Maggitt and Reeves-Maybin have extensive experience in Tennessee's defense, so both can likely be responsible for calls at the line of scrimmage in 2015. So with the Vols running so much nickel defense, the third cornerback spot may be a more pivotal position for Tennessee's defense than middle linebacker.

And the competition at nickel is just as heated this spring.

Before he was forced to sit out with mono, sophomore cornerback Emmanuel Moseley was one of the main competitors at the nickel position. Since he's been out, however, sophomore Rashaan Gaulden has stepped up and has seen a lot of time at nickel this spring.

Gaulden's teammates have seen the work he's put in and are witnessing the results of his dedication.

"Not many people knew what he did last year," sophomore safety Todd Kelly Jr. said about Gaulden, "but he sat back last year and watched (Justin) Coleman and saw how great he was and wanted to take after him.

"He doesn't want to slack off and make nickel a worse position than it was last year."

Cam Sutton, who has also seen time at the nickel in the spring in order to make himself more versatile, shares Kelly's views on Gaulden and the work he's done in the spring.

"Even when the ball isn't coming to him, he's going to the ball," Sutton stated. "He's consistently getting better each and every day. He hasn't digressed all spring."

At 6-foot-1, 184 pounds, Gaulden isn't the biggest defensive back on Tennessee's roster. But according to Kelly, Gaulden is "real physical and real confident" and isn't afraid to lay down a big hit on someone. The nickel position typically covers the speedy slot receivers on offense, so a physical corner is needed at the position. And Gaulden appears to be just that.

But the nickel is far from being locked down. With JUCO transfer Justin Martin and freshmen Micah Abernathy and Darrell Miller joining the defensive backfield before fall camp, the competition won't be over after spring practices conclude. And with the evolution on the offensive side of the ball in college football, nailing down a consistent starter at nickel will be vital for the Vols.