Following a 4-8 season with zero conference wins, Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt and his staff are finally starting to get an idea of what the team will look like when the Vols take the field in the fall. Here, we’ll take a look at the linebackers.
Going into last season, this was a young, inexperienced group. Injuries derailed most of the promise shown, but even then, there are plenty of returning players to keep an eye on once the season starts. Truth be told, linebacker may be one of the strongest returning groups. Following a 4-3 defensive scheme from former coach Butch Jones, any returning players will be learning a new system with the advent of Pruitt’s new 3-4 scheme.
— John Adams (@johnadamskns) January 12, 2018
Pruitt has not been shy in the past about the types of players he wants to come play linebacker for him — players that can play all four positions. There are two inside linebackers, a strong-side linebacker and a hybrid linebacker/defensive end who specializes in pass-rushing known as a “Jack”. It is tough to know who will be playing where come football season, but I will try and lump players into these positions based on where they have played in the past.
In Jones’ defense, they relied heavily on Nickel packages with two linebackers in the middle of the field, so it remains to be seen if this will help ease the transition in the middle part of the defense. Pruitt has been very vocal in the past talking about how he plans to build out from the middle of his defense.
The most exciting returning player is probably going to be Darrin Kirkland, Jr. Now a senior, Kirkland was once the most promising player on the entire team, not just at linebacker. Last fall, he suffered a season-ending injury in fall camp before the first game. Before that, he was third-team All-SEC as a sophomore and an All-SEC freshman in 2015. With 111 career tackles, Pruitt could certainly use a healthy Kirkland.
Daniel Bituli is also returning following an exciting sophomore season that included a 23-tackle game against Georgia Tech and an interception return for a touchdown against Alabama. He was also the leading tackler from last season. He has the build and athleticism to play anywhere in the linebacker position group, as Pruitt prefers, so look for Bituli to have a productive year. Bituli will be held out of spring practice while he recovers from injuries to his shoulder and knee.
Will Ignont was the most active freshman linebacker last season, playing in six games and racking up five tackles. He appeared in goal line packages and saw some time in the normal rotation. As a recruit, the four-star inside linebacker was recruited heavily by Pruitt while he was at Alabama, so Pruitt clearly likes the potential for Ignont to play multiple positions in his scheme. Watch out for Ignont to make some plays this season.
Shanon Reid had one tackle in seven games last season. Now a sophomore, the 6-foot, 215-pound Florida native has the athleticism to play all of the linebacker positions.
Weak-side, Jack Linebackers
Following injury-riddled redshirt freshmen and sophomore seasons, Quart’e Sapp had an excellent junior season with 78 tackles and a clean bill of health. He’s never been the best pass-rusher at his position, so that will likely be something that he works on this offseason. Barring something unexpected happening, Sapp will be on the field plenty once the season starts, likely as a starter.
Austin Smith, a name many Tennessee fans might not know, has long been on track to see consistent playing time. Smith saw the field in the absence of former outside linebacker Curt Maggitt in his freshman season in 2015, and was due to start the 2017 season against Georgia Tech, until a knee injury days before the game set his entire season back. He also was out his entire sophomore season in 2016 because of a shoulder injury. If he can stay healthy, his experience at both defensive end and outside linebacker could earn him some playing time.
Dillon Bates, the once promising legacy player, has all but disappeared the last few seasons. Now a redshirt senior, Bates will try to carve out a larger role in this new defense, even if it is just a relief role. After 15 tackles in 40 games played the last four years, Bates is one of the senior leaders on a team that has severely lacked leadership.
Solon Page III is a 6-foot-2 redshirt freshman that was pegged as a safety by some recruiting services. It will be interesting to see if he can find a place in the defense.
Help On The Way
Naturally, Pruitt tried to bring in a few different recruits to help support his current roster. He managed to bring in two recruits that will be brought in with the express purpose of playing linebacker. However, some others may end up in the position group before it is all said and done.
Jordan Allen was a late addition to the most recent recruiting class, but is on campus and will participate in spring practice as an early enrollee. The No. 13 junior college recruit in the country, he was recruited as a weak-side defensive end. Look for Allen to see some time as a stand-up linebacker/edge pass-rusher in Pruitt’s scheme, likely at the Jack.
JJ Peterson is the quintessential linebacker in Pruitt’s defense, even if he doesn’t arrive until the summer. At 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighing 240 pounds, Peterson has the potential to come in and make an immediate impact as a freshman. He is as strong as he is fast, granting him the ability to stop the run on the inside as well as contain, rush and cover from the outside.