Defending a key area of the field, this upcoming year’s Tennessee linebacking corps will face many questions with the loss of two key starters and two new position coaches. Here is a preview of what Vols fans might expect to see this fall at both the outside and inside linebackers positions.
Led by the new coach Shelton Felton, the outside linebackers are a bit more experienced than their counterparts between the ends. Felton returns to Tennessee after being a part of Jeremy Pruitt’s 2018 staff and spending one year at Akron as outside linebackers and defensive line coach under head coach Tom Arth.
After the loss of Darrell Taylor, expected starters Kivon Bennett and Deandre Johnson will need to sharpen their game going into this season. Last year, the two were primarily situational pass-rushers, but if they want to succeed as every-down, they will need to become more well-rounded.
Currently, Bennett is slotted into the ‘Sam’ position on the strong-side with Johnson occupying the ‘Jack’ slot on the weak-side, but that could certainly change as the season progresses.
Expected to play in reserve, Roman Harrison finds himself in a similar position as the starters in needing to become a more well-rounded every-down outsider linebacker. It is a likely possibility that Harrison may rotate into either slot this season.
Additionally, Jordan Allan will provide some depth. Allan, who missed the 2019 season with an injury, will need to improve his physicality if he wants to make an impact this fall.
While new to the coach position, Brian Niedermeyer has been on Pruitt’s staff since his arrival at Rocky Top. Niedermeyer has earned high praise as a top recruiter in the nation and was the main contact for both Henry To’o To’o and Quavaris Crouch, the expected starters, during their recruitments to the Vols.
With the loss of Daniel Bituli, the almost certain signal caller for the fall is To’o To’o, who starred last year alongside Bituli. The question for the coaching staff will be where to actually place To’o To’o and Crouch in the defensive scheme.
While play-calling duties are typically tied to the ‘Mike’ position, from a physical perspective To’o To’o may be more suited to the ‘Will’ position that he occupied last year. Crouch, at 6-foot-2-inches and 241 pounds, appears to fit the dimensions of the ‘Mike’ better. It is conceivable that, due to the similar position on the field in the 3-4 defense, To’o To’o could run the defense from the ‘Will’ slot.
J. J. Peterson, Solon Page III and Aaron Beasley are the likely reserve inside linebackers that will provide depth for Tennessee. With Crouch coming off an injury that would have taken him out of spring practice had it not been cancelled, these three options could be crucial if Crouch misses time in the fall.
Two other players to watch are Bryson Eason and Martavius French. The pair out of Whitehaven in Memphis could make an impact, depending on how quickly they pick up the defense.