Seniors: Jonathan Kongbo, Dillon Bates
Juniors: Austin Smith, Darrell Taylor, Quart’e Sapp, Darrin Kirkland Jr., Daniel Bituli
Sophomores: Jordan Allen, Deandre Johnson, Will Ignont, Shanon Reid
Freshmen: Solon Page III, J.J. Peterson
Our fall camp position preview series continues. Our previous installment looked at Tennessee’s cornerbacks. Now we take a look at the Vols’ linebackers prior to the 2018 season.
The one unit on Tennessee’s roster that has experienced the most change since Jeremy Pruitt and his staff took over has been the linebacking unit. The Vols have added four players from the defensive line to their linebackers with the switch to a base 3-4 scheme, and several players have undergone fairly big transformations in the weight room from the end of the 2017 season to now.
So how will this unit shake out? That’s a tough question to answer.
In a 3-4 defense, the two outside linebackers serve the role as a pass rusher like the defensive ends do in a 4-3 scheme. Being able to work in pass coverage is a plus, but it’s not a big focus. The Vols’ outside linebackers this year will essentially be defensive ends except they’ll be standing up and won’t have their hands in the dirt line a lineman. The inside linebackers serve the same role as a middle linebacker in a 4-3 defense to an extent. They’ll be more of the coverage backers, but they’ll chiefly be responsible for stopping running backs and dropping back in short and medium zone coverage.
So who fits where for the Vols in the linebacking unit?
Tennessee’s pass rushers are likely going to be Darrell Taylor, Jonathan Kongbo, Austin Smith, Jordan Allen, Deandre Johnson, Quart’e Sapp, Solon Page III, and Shanon Reid. The inside linebackers will likely be Darrin Kirkland Jr., Daniel Bituli, Will Ignont, Dillon Bates, and J.J. Peterson.
But aside from a few exceptions, Tennessee’s linebacking unit will likely be in flux all season as Pruitt and his staff try and figure out where players fit best in his system.
Pruitt said earlier this year that they look for “four-for-four” linebackers in their defensive system. That means they look for linebackers who can play all four positions effectively. Incoming freshman J.J. Peterson seems to fit that mold fairly well, and he could see playing time at any of the four positions this season assuming he performs well in fall camp after not getting enrolled for summer classes this year. Quart’e Sapp also showed his versatility this spring by playing both outside and insider linebacker. Will Ignont might be another player who could play more than two linebacker positions as well.
Look for Darrell Taylor to be one of Tennessee’s starting outside linebackers. Taylor seems to be a perfect fit for a 3-4 outside linebacker, and his size and athleticism should finally be able to shine in this role. He’s been too small to play defensive end the last two years but has anyway, but this season may finally see him find his perfect role.
Jordan Allen was someone who was expected to come in and play right away as a junior college transfer, but he didn’t stand out much in the spring. This summer, however, he’s added on a lot of weight and seems to be filling out into an SEC-style linebacker. He could end up playing a bit inside at times, but he’ll probably get a crack at outside linebacker first.
Quart’e Sapp, as mentioned above, is one of the more versatile options in this unit. Will he stay outside, the position he was recruited to play? Or will he move inside like he did for the last half of spring practice? Sapp has the intelligence, instincts, and athleticism to thrive at whatever position he plays in.
Jonathan Kongbo is a bit of a wild card in this unit. He was still a defensive end as late as the beginning of this summer. But now he’s made the transition to linebacker, and he’ll be focusing exclusively on attacking the quarterback. That should help him play faster and without as much scheming, something that seemed to hold him back his first two years at Tennessee.
Deandre Johnson and Austin Smith will also likely rotate in and out of the outside linebacker spots too. Smith has been injured throughout his Tennessee career thus far, but he’s shown flashes of potential when he’s been able to stay healthy. If he can remain injury-free this fall, will he finally be able to compete for more playing time and show off his ability to rush the passer? Johnson, like Darrell Taylor, was just too small to truly be a defensive end in a 4-3 defense. But he seems to have the right size and speed to be an outside linebacker in UT’s new 3-4 scheme, so this fall could be a big one for him for this season and the future.
On the inside, Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Daniel Bitulit should be Tennessee’s starters. That is, if Kirkland can stay healthy. He’s shown he has All-SEC ability when healthy, but that was also two years ago. How have those injuries affected him? And how did his near-transfer this summer affect how his teammates viewed him? If Kirkland has it all together, he should be a force inside for Tennessee. But that’s a big “if” right now. Bituli was a beast for the Vols last year — when he was on the field. After having a breakout first game of the 2017 season, Bituli inexplicably saw his playing time fluctuate throughout the season in favor of Colton Jumper and other linebackers. He’ll still split duties on a rotational basis with other linebackers this year, but expect Bituli to show off some great talent this season and be one of the primary inside linebackers.
Backing up Kirkland and Bituli will likely be Will Ignont and possibly Quart’e Sapp if he stays inside more than outside. Ignont has a lot of potential as a former four-star prospect, but he didn’t play much as a freshman last season. He looks bigger, faster, and more fluid now, and he could be ready for a bigger role in 2018.
Dillon Bates has never lived up to his billing as a Vol, and this will be his last chance at making an impact in the orange and white. But he could very well end up being buried on the depth chart by more experienced and more talented players.
The one player who will be the biggest wildcard in Tennessee’s linebacking unit will be incoming freshman J.J. Peterson. How much will he play in his true freshman season? And when he plays, which positions will he play? Peterson has a bright future ahead of him, but how much of that will we see in 2018?
Shanon Reid and Solon Page III are probably the odd men out in this group, but that doesn’t mean they can’t contribute on special teams. Page especially has some good speed that should help him on coverage units.
Tennessee’s linebackers are a fairly veteran group with some very intriguing upside. A lot of the players in this unit haven’t lived up to expectations thus far, but if there’s a coaching staff who can get the most out of them, it’s this one.