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Tennessee has a positional battle developing at linebacker

Jeremy Banks is already making some noise.

NCAA Football: Florida at Tennessee Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

One of Tennessee’s two inside linebacker positions is set, but the other is a bit of a mystery. Returning sophomore linebacker Henry To’o To’o is expected to fill the shoes of departed linebacker Daniel Bituli this fall, but that still leaves one spot open for the taking.

Most assumed that this job would land in the hands of Quavaris Crouch, but a wildcard has entered the race. And according to defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley, he’s making a real push for the spot.

That wildcard is Jeremy Banks, who returned to the roster at the open of fall camp. Banks, who began his career at running back, shifted to linebacker during the 2019 season. However, Banks was removed from the team mid-season after making a threat against a police officer. Banks apologized weeks later, and Tennessee gave him a path back to rejoining the team. According to Jeremy Pruitt, Banks did everything he was asked to do.

Now he finds himself in the thick of a positional battle.

“It’s an open competition,” Derrick Ansley told reporters last week. “We have some guys back from last year that were pretty young. Quavaris Crouch, who we played at inside backer and outside backer, has kind of been a journeyman his first year. We are kind of getting him stationary at the inside backer position, the money position, which is a really good spot for him. Backing him up right now is Jeremy Banks. They’re fighting tooth and nail for that one position.”

Crouch is a former top 50 prospect who signed with Tennessee as an athlete. Pruitt sold Crouch on the idea of swapping to the defensive side of the ball and leaving his days at running back in the past. Ironically, he’s battling another former running back for a starting spot.

Whatever happens in this battle, both guys will end up playing. As Ansley mentioned, Crouch spent time at outside and inside linebacker last season, and we know Pruitt loves moving this group all over the defensive front.

Tennessee has a clear top three options at linebacker now, it appears. But what about a fourth option? The Vols have several freshmen entering the mix, but Ansley singled out another guy that recently changed positions.

“Behind Henry, a guy like Aaron Beasley, he’s kind of a tweener who’s played safety and played linebacker,” Ansley said. “Now he’s full-time linebacker rotation. We have four really good guys that are playing and rotating through and the cream will rise to the top of who the best man is. The best two will play.”

With those four as the clear-cut top options, it will be interesting to see how Tennessee plays freshmen like Martavius French and Bryson Eason. Another piece of this puzzle is J.J. Peterson, who has yet to make any impact for the Volunteers. Ansley recently noted that they’re trying him at outside linebacker, so we’ll see what develops there.

Though it’s taken a couple of recruiting cycles, Tennessee finally has depth and competition at linebacker — both inside and out. There’s some developing left to do, but this front seven is full of young blue-chip talent. Jeremy Pruitt should see some real returns on his defensive recruiting in the next few seasons.