One of the biggest questions facing the 2020 Tennessee Volunteers is how they will replace linebackers Daniel Bituli and Darrell Taylor.
Returning starter Sophomore Henry To’o To’o will take over the on-field defensive signal calling duties from his inside linebacker position, while also trying to become one of the leaders on the defense.
As a freshman, To’o To’o started 12 games at one of the inside linebacker spots and played in all 13 games. He finished second among SEC freshmen in tackles and fourth among FBS freshmen. To’o To’o earned SEC All-Freshman Team honors and was named a Freshman All-American.
“The first thing with Henry is he’s changed his body. He’s shredded some body fat and added some muscle. He’s gotten quicker at the point of attack. He’s a lot better laterally, changing directions and covering the running backs out of the backfield,” defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley said. “He’s doing a really good job of trying to take on the leadership role of Daniel (Bituli), Nigel (Warrior), and Darrell (Taylor). Those were three really good leaders that we lost and that’s one thing we’re trying to develop during camp is everybody doing things the right way all the time on and off the field.”
While To’o To’o will fill the leadership void left by Bituli in the middle of the defense, one of the young linebackers will need to step up into the other starting inside linebacker spot.
Sophomore Quavaris Crouch and recently reinstated junior Jeremy Banks have stepped up to the plate and have been in an intense competition since the start of camp to get the starting spot next to To’o To’o while sophomore Aaron Beasley is solidifying his role as To’o To’o’s backup.
“It’s an open competition,” Ansley said. “Quavaris Crouch, who 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. Behind Henry (To’o To’o), a guy like Aaron Beasley, he’s kind of a tweener who’s played safety and played linebacker. 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.”
In his freshman season, Crouch played in 13 games and totaled 28 tackles between his time at inside and outside linebacker. His speed and incredible power will be great assets to the defense.
Before his dismissal in 2019, Banks was starting to find his stride at inside linebacker using his football instinct to grab two-interceptions against Chattanooga. His development will be key to Tennessee's success.
At outside linebacker, Tennessee will need to replace their most prolific pass rusher since Derek Barnett in Darrell Taylor.
In his senior season, Taylor totaled 46 tackles and 8.5 sacks. Replacing that kind of production won’t be easy, so look for the Vols to take a pass-rushing by committee approach.
“Losing a guy like Darell, a second-round draft pick and one of the top ends in the draft last year, it’s going to be tough to replace that kind of production, that kind of talent,” Ansley said. “It’s going to be kind of by committee. We have guys that played a little bit last year and we need younger guys to step forward. Kivon Bennett has pass-rushing ability. Deandre Johnson has pass-rushing ability. Both of those guys are redshirt juniors, so they’ve been here for four years. Backing them up, giving some push is Roman Harrison and John Mincey is playing out there. Morven Joseph and Tyler Baron are two young guys that we need to continue to develop and bring along to add more pass rushers to our staple of guys.”
Bennett had a solid 2019 totaling six tackles for losses and 27 tackles total. Another good offseason could lead to Bennett being a breakout star in 2020.
Johnson played in all 13 games last season accumulating 13 tackles and 4.5 TFLs and with a more expansive role in 2020, he can flourish.
Harrison and Mincey played important depth roles at outside linebacker in 2019 and becoming more important parts of the rotation in 2020 will give Tennessee more variety in the pass rush.
The development of young pass rushers Joseph and Barron, highly touted recruits out of Florida and Knoxville respectively, could bring unexpected depth to a defensive that would gladly take it.
Tennessee’s success this year will be predicated on the development and progression of a young but capable front seven.