GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Tennessee national championship linebacker and NFL veteran Eric “E-Mo” Westmoreland believes coach Butch Jones made a key adjustment this offseason.
“Allowing those guys to play 7-on-7 will pay big dividends,” said Westmoreland, an All-SEC linebacker and team captain with the Vols before his six-year NFL career with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns.
“Tennessee will find out who its leaders are really early, who’s leading the drills, who’s getting the offensive guys together, who’s getting the defensive guys together,” he said. “You find out who is following who, and who listens to who out there.”
Establishing a hierarchy was one of the keys to the 1998 national championship season, Westmoreland said, but that was only part of the benefit he and his fellow linebackers enjoyed.
Al Wilson was the leader of a linebacking corps that included Raynoch Thompson, Chris Ramseur, Shawn Johnson, Andre James, Austin Kemp, Roger Alexander, Matt Blankenship, Jonathan Sweet, Thomas Stallworth and Jerrod Hayden.
Westmoreland said he remembers he was coming off an injury, so the time he spent alongside Wilson and Thompson in June and July helped the trio get on the same page before the national championship season kicked off.
“There had to be someone out there calling the plays on offense and defense, so now you’re all working together, you’re teaching those younger guys how to practice and how things should be done,” said Westmoreland, who often returned from the NFL to work out with Tennessee players during individual workouts. “You’re also learning how to stay off the ground.”
Jones’ concern with allowing 7-on-7 in the past has been the risk of injuries. But with Tennessee needing to break in two new quarterbacks, several young receivers and many defensive backs, Jones decided the reward outweighed the risk this offseason.
Westmoreland, who now coaches at Chattanooga’s Baylor School, said it’s a good gamble.
“It’s like playing pickup basketball, only on grass,” Westmoreland said, putting the risk into perspective. “I remember going into the 1998 season, I had just came off injury and redshirt in 1997, and I was penciled in to start.
“But that summer me, Al and Ray, going through that summer and communicating with each other was vital, so when the season started we knew each other like the back of our hands,” he said. “I could look at them and know what they wanted, and where they wanted me to be. You can’t wait to communicate on game day, when it’s getting loud in that stadium. You better have it figured out way before that.”
Tennessee opens the season Monday, Sept. 4, in Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium against Georgia Tech.
Westmoreland said what takes place this summer for the Vols will determine how much success the team has this season.
“No doubt, the summer plays a big, huge part in overall team development,” Westmoreland said. “It’s the strength coaches and players getting after it together, so that camaraderie, that is big for a team that wins.”