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Tennessee Football: Examining The Linebacker Position

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How The Vols Look In 2019, And Building Long-Term Depth

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Late last week the Tennessee football program began their spring season — fourteen practices spread throughout March and April culminating in the Orange and White Spring Game on April 13th. One of the biggest surprises of the first practice session was a slight position change for one of Tennessee’s top recruits, linebacker Quavaris Crouch.

Following the first practice of the 2019 campaign head coach Jeremy Pruitt explained that Crouch, who was recruited as a running back and outside linebacker, would start the spring off at inside linebacker. The reason for this adjustment is essentially two-fold. For one, it provides Crouch a better chance to fully understand the defensive scheme as the defense is “easier to learn from inside-out, instead of outside in,” according to Pruitt. Secondly, it helps compensate for a lack of depth at the inside linebacker spot.

As a Vols fan you are probably conditioned at this point to have a visceral reaction to the phrase “lack of depth.” Don’t worry. A few injuries, and recruits who did not enroll early, may contribute to a temporary issue. However, linebacker should be a strength of the team entering the 2019 regular season due to a strong balance of veteran leaders and talented recruits. Here is a quick look ahead at the linebacker position for the fall:

  • J.J. Peterson, Redshirt-Freshman
  • Jordan Allen, Redshirt-Junior
  • Deandre Johnson, Junior
  • Darrell Taylor, Redshirt-Senior
  • Shanon Reid, Junior
  • Will Ignont, Junior
  • Quavaris Crouch, Freshman
  • Nick Humphrey, Junior
  • Darrin Kirkland Jr., Redshirt-Senior
  • Daniel Bituli, Senior
  • Solon Page III, Redshirt-Sophomore
  • West Shuler, Freshman
  • Matt Ballard, Redshirt-Junior
  • Cameron Miller, Redshirt-Freshman
  • Landon Knoll, Redshirt-Senior
  • Nyles Gaddy, Redshirt-Freshman
  • Henry To’oto’o, Freshman
  • Roman Harrison, Freshman

As we have discussed elsewhere the base defense for the Vols is a 3-4 scheme. In other words, a total of four linebackers with two positioned inside and two positioned outside. However, as we have also discussed previously the Vols spend a majority of their defensive snaps in their “Nickel” defense to match personnel with the offense. Essentially, this replaces one of the outside linebacker spots with a defensive back. Therefore, Tennessee most often has one outside linebacker — “Jack” — and two inside linebackers on the field at one time.

Chris Rumph, Tennessee’s outside linebackers coach, seemed to get the most out of Darrell Taylor last season. Taylor had more solo tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, forced fumbles, and fumble recoveries last season than he did in 2016 and 2017 combined. Assuming Taylor has continued to develop in the offseason from a strength and conditioning perspective, and given another year of teaching from Coach Rumph, he is poised for a monster year. Taylor should definitely be the starting ‘Jack’ barring any unexpected circumstances.

Tennessee also returns a veteran leader at inside linebacker, senior Daniel Bituli. Last season was Bituli’s second consecutive season leading the Volunteers in total tackles. He also doubled his tackles for loss from the 2017 season. Outside of Bituli’s statistical production his return is significant because he played the ‘Mike’ inside linebacker position. This is the player typically responsible for communicating the defensive play call and setting the defensive front. Like Taylor, Bituli should be a day-one starter if all goes according to plan.

What Coach Pruitt does with the remaining inside linebacker position is the most intriguing story-line of spring ball, in my opinion. Incumbent starter at this position, Darrin Kirkland Jr., returns for his final year of college football. While he appeared in every game for the Vols, and was 4th on the team in total tackles, he also looked a step slow at times and failed to return to his level of production as a true freshman in 2015. I would not be surprised to see a new face at the other middle linebacker spot when the Vols open play against Georgia State. The two strongest competitors for this position are Will Ignont, who appeared in all 12 games for the Vols last year, and extremely talented redshirt-freshman JJ Peterson.

Peterson, like Crouch, was an outstanding outside linebacker in high school who appears to be working at inside linebacker with the Vols. It’s worth monitoring if this becomes a developmental trend for Coach Pruitt. There are two additional outside linebackers set to join the team come fall, Henry To’oto’o and Roman Harrison (Harrison played all over the field for his high-school team but is projected to be an outside linebacker with the Vols). Will they start by learning at inside linebacker first? This could give them the best opportunity to learn the defense quickly, and would build depth long-term. Looking ahead two years from now the defense would have at least four experienced linebackers capable of playing any of the four positions in Crouch, Peterson, To’oto’o, and Harrison.


What do you think the Vols linebacking unit will look like when the Vols open against Georgia State? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.