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10 Questions for 2016 #7: Who’s next at linebacker?

NCAA Football: Chattanooga at Tennessee
Cortez McDowell will get more opportunities behind Jalen Reeves-Maybin this fall.
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

If we were to play the always terrifying “Which player could the Vols least afford to lose?” game, you could make a compelling case for Jalen Reeves-Maybin. His 105 tackles were 35 more than Brian Randolph’s second best last season, and while the Vols found an answer at middle linebacker in 2015 freshman Darrin Kirkland Jr., JRM’s play at the other spot with the Vols primarily in the nickel was far more valuable. The sophomore Kirkland and the senior Reeves-Maybin should combine to make Tennessee’s starting linebacker corps one of the best in the SEC.

But who’s behind them? And what about when the opponent makes Tennessee show a 4-3 look?

That third spot last year often fell into the hands of Austin Smith, but he slid down to defensive end this season. And since Tennessee opens with Appalachian State, they of the sixth best yards per carry average in college football last season, there will be plenty of snaps for linebackers beyond JRM and Kirkland right away.

The next set of choices come with plenty of recruiting stars, and in some cases lots of special teams experience. Colton Jumper started early in the year at middle linebacker before Kirkland took over. Cortez McDowell and Kenny Bynum played in every game last season, and Gavin Bryant appeared in ten. Quart’e Sapp redshirted last year but might have the brightest future of the group. And the famous last names are here as well in Dillon Bates and Elliott Berry.

Last year the Vols had varied results against teams who lined up and forced Tennessee to stop the run. The Vols were actually pretty solid against Alabama (37 carries for 144 yards, 3.8 yards per carry without sack yardage) and excelled against teams with little passing game to fall back on against Missouri (29 carries, 88 yards) and Northwestern (37 carries, 132 yards). Georgia had 165 yards on just 29 carries (5.69 per) even without Nick Chubb.

It was Arkansas who unsurprisingly hurt Tennessee the most here: 50 carries for 275 yards (5.5 per). Thankfully there’s not a rushing attack of this level on the schedule this year, but the Vols should be better equipped to handle what they will see from Georgia, Alabama, Appalachian State and others either way.

I’ll be curious to see if JRM comes off the field for any meaningful snaps this fall or if the Vols just keep sending him out there again. Perhaps Bob Shoop will use lots of different options to back him and Kirkland up. It’ll still be another year before Tennessee needs a first-team answer here. But if we start figuring it out this year, chances are we’ll really like that answer by next fall.