Gone: Chris Weatherd (graduation), Austin Smith (moved to defensive end)
Returning: Jalen Reeves-Maybin (Sr.), Darrin Kirkland Jr. (Soph.), Quart’e Sapp (RS Fr.), Cortez McDowell (Jr.), Colton Jumper (Jr.), Dillon Bates (RS Soph.), Elliott Berry (Jr.), Kenny Bynum (RS Sr.), Gavin Bryant (RS Soph.)
Newcomers: Daniel Bituli (No. 3 player from the state of TN in 2016 class), Ja’Quain Blakely (No. 39 OLB in the nation in 2016 class)
Bob Shoop runs almost exclusively a 4-2-5 defense – leaving just two linebacker spots in the starting lineup. That’s a perfect fit for UT’s pair of potential All-SEC linebackers Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Darrin Kirkland Jr.
Reeves-Maybin is the proven commodity at outside linebacker. The senior had a knack for the big play in 2015, piling up 14 TFLs, six sacks, two forced fumbles and two recoveries to go along with his team-high total of 105 tackles – making his second consecutive year in triple digits in that category. Expect JRM to be used in a variety of ways in Shoop’s defense – helping in coverage, pass rusher, and, again, piling up a big number of stops.
The Vols also learned a lot about what they have inside with Kirkland in 2015. He started 10 games at one of the most challenging spots on the year as a true freshman, showing he’s a physical, athletic and cerebral player in the middle of the defense. He’ll have a chance to prove he’s one of the best at his position in the SEC this year and a rising star not only in this defense, but around the league.
Behind those two, there are certainly questions. Colton Jumper will be the next guy in at inside linebacker with Quart’e Sapp and Cortez McDowell waiting in the wings outside. Expect the Vols to play those three with some degree of regularity as the coaching staff is trying to take some of the burden off the starters.
Veterans such as Dillon Bates, Gavin Bryant, Kenny Bynum and Elliott Berry will be joined by newcomers Daniel Bituli and Ja’Quain Blakely to provide depth and, in many cases, help out on special teams.
By the Numbers:
- 66: The number of tackles Kirkland had as a freshman – good for second in the league among freshmen last year and fourth-best in history for a UT freshman
- 8th: Where JRM finished in the league rankings in tackles per game last year (8.08/game)
- 3rd: Where Tennessee ranks in the SEC in talent at linebacker (via gridironnow.com)
Initial Depth Chart:
UT’s first depth chart listed Reeves-Maybin as the starter outside with Sapp and McDowell bracketed behind him. Kirkland is starting inside with Jumper listed behind him.
The Vols might have the depth to redshirt Blakely and/or Bituli, but they may also want them to contribute on special teams, so that will likely be the deciding factor.