SEC Country is breaking down each Tennessee position group as the Vols prepare for spring football practice.
Friday’s breakdown features Tennessee’s 2016 linebackers.
Notable departures: None.
Major players: Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Darrin Kirkland, Jr.
Analysis: Tennessee’s linebacking corps should be a team strength in 2016 with the return of Jalen Reeves-Maybin. The senior considered an early exit from college to the NFL, but decided to return for one more season with the Vols. Considered a team leader, he’s a huge part of Tennessee’s defense. The Clarksville, Tenn., native led the Vols with 14 tackles for loss and was second on the team with five sacks at weakside linebacker. Always opportunistic, Reeves-Maybin has also proven durable. He started every game last season. His speed is tough for opposing offenses to account for. Cortez McDowell, also a converted safety like Reeves-Maybin, provides depth.
The rising star of the linebacking group is sophomore Darrin Kirkland, Jr. It took a while for Kirkland to catch on last season, but he ended up starting 10 games as a freshman and was fourth on the team with 66 tackles. That’s also good for fourth all-time by a freshman in tackles. Kirkland is athletic and reportedly has a photographic memory. Those are good traits for a middle linebacker.
Tennessee plays in a nickel package with five defensive backs so extensively that its strongside linebacker has limited opportunities to see the field. Austin Smith started one game last season. Spring practice could be big for Quart’e Sapp and Gavin Bryant as both try to secure more playing time. Although not as athletic as his peers, Colton Jumper can provide depth. He started three games last season.
Two legacy players will get their chance to impress Tennessee’s coaches this spring. Elliot Berry and Dillon Bates have both been slowed by injury while at Tennessee, but are already fan favorites thanks to their heritage. It remains to be seen what Berry can do, because he’s coming off knee surgery. Berry is the son of former Vols running back James Berry, and the younger brother of All-American and Kansas City Chiefs Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry. Bates is the son of former Vols safety and Dallas Cowboys great Bill Bates.
Key question: Who provides depth?
Bottom line: Reeves-Maybin and Kirkland are proven players and could be one of the best linebacker duos in the league. If newly hired defensive coordinator Bob Shoop sticks with a nickel-based approach, they’ll be the bell cows. If not, it will be interesting to see who might be the third linebacker in the mix. Either way, the Vols have strength at middle linebacker and a playmaker beside him.
Saturday preview: Offensive Line