The Tennessee defense was very much up and down in 2022, but the good news is that they won’t have to replace too much going into 2023. One key starter from every level exits — edge rusher Byron Young, linebacker Jeremy Banks and safety Trevon Flowers.
Aaron Beasley and Juwan Mitchell were expected to take over at inside linebacker in 2023, but Mitchell hit the portal instead. That freed up a spot for Tennessee, and they filled it by bringing in veteran BYU transfer Keenan Pili. It was a much needed addition for the Volunteers, who have plenty of numbers now at the position but are suddenly thin on experience.
The two-time captain at BYU finished 2022 second on the team in tackles with 62 stops, five of which came for a loss. It was a nice bounceback year for Pilli, who suffered a season-ending injury just three games into the 2021 season.
Now he’s headed east to play in the SEC, set to cap his college career with the Volunteers.
“Yeah, once again, he’s played a lot of ball, but the leadership that he has,” Tennessee defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “We had a chance to meet with him and communicate with him – just an awesome guy.”
With three key defensive veterans exiting the program, along with guys like Hendon Hooker, Cedric Tillman and Jerome Carvin leaving on the other side of the ball, veteran leadership certainly is a big plus with Pili. It’s tough to walk into a program and be viewed like that, but he’s a guy that’s been there and done that over the past few years with the Cougars.
“Obviously we know he’s a really good football player, but his leadership style and the way he carries himself, I think he’ll be a really good resource for some of the younger ‘backers in that room,” Banks said. “He’ll be someone that they can look to get some answers and just kind of being a pro, so to speak. We’re excited about him.”
Pili will join Aaron Beasley, who is coming off of an incredible performance in the Orange Bowl against Clemson. Beasley put up 12 tackles and two sacks, powering the Tennessee defense and holding Clemson to just 14 points.
That gives Tennessee two guys in the middle who have played a lot of ball, giving Banks a lot of trust in the teeth of his defense.
“Like I said,” Banks finished. “He’s played a ton of ball and played at a high level, but we’re really excited about his leadership and how he’ll help these young guys really develop and get better.”
Beyond those two, Tennessee welcomes in a trio of freshmen linebackers from their 2023 class. Arion Carter leads the way for the Volunteers, entering his college career as a highly-ranked four-star prospect. Jalen Smith, another four-star, joins three-star Jeremiah Telander to complete the group. They join Kalib Perry and Elijah Herring from the class of 2022.
We’re a year out from seeing these guys compete for starting roles, but it’ll be interesting to see them come along this fall under some senior leadership. Pili and Beasley will play a big role in getting them ready to go for 2024, and that process starts this spring.