KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — “Missed alignment, missed assignment,” says one cliched linebacker mantra, and too many times that applied to Tennessee’s defense last season.
The Vols’ injury woes of 2016 were well-documented, “two different teams” because of the high attrition, according to one staffer.
Perhaps nowhere was the damage more costly than in the linebacking corps, the brain center of most every defense.
Tennessee was without middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. (high ankle sprain) and preseason All-SEC linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin (shoulder) much of last season.
Talented No. 2s Quart’e Sapp (knee) and Cortez McDowell (concussion) were also lost to injuries, and the defense came apart.
Linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen, who once played the position himself at North Carolina, could not keep his position group assignments sound.
Coach Butch Jones noted the missed assignments in press conferences last season, and the linebacker corps figures to be one of the most scrutinized position groups on the team this spring.
Tennessee football LB overview
Kirkland, who also started as a true freshman, is under more pressure to lead and produce than any other defensive player.
Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has identified Kirkland as a leader, entrusting him with the middle linebacker responsibilities.
There are more questions than answers at outside linebacker entering spring.
Injuries have contributed to Dillon Bates not yet to living up to his top-100 recruiting hype as he enters his fourth season. Bates has yet to prove more than a famous name, though spring will present him with opportunities.
Sapp’s questionable injury status gives Bates and Elliott Berry opportunities to prove themselves this spring before talented signee Solon Page lll arrives.
On the weak side, McDowell proved himself a warrior playing through bumps and bruises, but he could be challenged to hold off rising sophomore Daniel Bituli.
Bituli, a 6-3, 235, is the most impressive athlete in the linebacking corps and was used in goal-line situations and special teams as a true freshman.
Over-achieving junior Colton Jumper, recently granted another year of eligibility, will look to find his way on the field after stepping into the middle linebacker position in place of Kirkland much of last season.
Tennessee football LB by the numbers
Jumper started seven of 13 games and was tops among the linebackers with 61 tackles including 4 for loss. Jumper had 1 interception, 3 QB hurries and a forced fumble. Solid numbers, and respectable considering he’s a former walk-on.
Cortez McDowell had 54 stops in his 12 games, but he’ll need to play faster to win a starting position this season, as speed will be emphasized.
Kirkland totaled 45 tackles in eight games, including 5 for loss.
Reeves-Maybin had NFL ability, but a targeting ejection and then a shoulder injury during special teams coverage in the third game of the season limited him to just 20 tackles in four games — 13 of them coming in the 45-24 win over Virginia Tech.
Tennessee football LBs moving forward
Shoop said the best 11 would be on the field, but he also indicated Tennessee might go with more of a 4-3 look than the 4-2-5 he inherited.
It’s not written in stone that a defensive back won’t slide into that third outside linebacker spot, which in many defenses has become more of a hybrid role like the old “monster” or “rover” positions.
Kirkland Jr. in the middle and a more detailed Thigpen seem to be the only sure things in this linebacker corps, based on Jones’ comments toward the end of last season.
Can Thigpen teach the athletic Bituli the scheme well enough to get him on the field? It’s not a matter of “if” Bituli starts in his career, so much as “when.”
If a defensive back does get moved up into the linebacker corps, which player has the physical enough makeup to become Tennessee’s version of Jabrill Peppers, or, Eric Berry, circa 2009?
Tennessee football LBs standout performer
It has to be Kirkland the way the stars are lining up with Brady Hoke now a part of the defensive staff, and Shoop sold on his leadership and football abilities.
Kirkland, of course, was originally a Michigan commit but changed over to Tennessee once the Wolverines put Hoke on the hot seat.
Every great defense has a catalyst, and Kirkland is at the position to play that Al Wilson-inspired role at Tennessee.
A first-team All-SEC season is not out of the question if Hoke gets his defensive tackles playing well enough to open up run-blitz lanes and more advantageous angles of pursuit for the linebackers.
Projected depth chart:
Dillon Bates (6-3, 220, RS Jr.)
Elliott Berry (5-11, 222, Sr.)
Quart’e Sapp (limited knee injury, 6-2, 220, RS So.)
Solon Page lll (reports summer, 6-2, 205, Fr.)
Darrin Kirkland Jr. (6-1, 230, Jr.)
Colton Jumper (6-2, 224, RS Jr.)
Will Ignont (reports summer, 6-2, 230, Fr.)
Cortez McDowell (6-0, 235, Sr.)
Daniel Bituli (6-3, 235, So.)
Shanon Reid (6-0, 205, Fr.)
Austin Smith (6-3, 236, Jr.)
Others competing to play:
Gavin Bryant (6-0, 238, RS Jr.)
Ja’Quain Blakely (6-2, 230 RS Fr.)
Landon Knoll (6-3, 217, RS So.)
DaJour Maddox (5-11, 210, RS So.)
Matt Ballard (6-1, 215, RS Fr.)