The alpha males of Tennessee’s linebacker room is senior outside linebacker Darrell Taylor and senior inside linebacker Daniel Bituli. Few on the Vols’ roster have played more football than the senior duo.
Bituli, a Nashville, Tennessee native, is the heart of Tennessee’s defense. He’s played in 33 of the 37 games the Vols have played the last three seasons. Bituli has started 18 of those games, and he’s led the team in total tackles over the last two seasons. In 2017, he recorded 90 tackles thanks to a 23-tackle performance against Georgia Tech. Last season, he finished with 79 tackles and ranked third on the team in tackles for loss with 6.5.
Taylor, on the other hand, led the Vols in tackles for a loss, as well as sacks. In a breakout junior season, Taylor proved himself as one of the more dangerous pass rushers in the SEC with eight sacks and 11.0 tackles for a loss.
Few linebacker tandems in the country can match the production of Bituli and Taylor. But two good linebackers isn’t enough when you consider the running backs and quarterbacks Tennessee will face this season.
Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt went out this previous recruiting cycle and added two elite talents in four-star Henry To’oto’o and four-star Quavaris Crouch. Pair those two with J.J. Peterson, who redshirted last season after arriving in Knoxville as a four-star, and the Vols have quite the future at the linebacker position.
But while the future looks good at the position, Tennessee needs those young linebackers to be ready to go this season, particularly on August 31st when the Vols open up the 2019 season against Georgia State. All three are slowly progressing to that point.
“Henry (To’oto’o) is a guy who things have come really easy to him,” Pruitt said following Wednesday’s practice. “He’s pretty advanced for a young guy at that position.
“He picks things up, instinctive, can cover, fits the runs, is what you’re looking for in a linebacker…. He is capable of being a signal caller. He is a guy who can play all three downs. He goes out there and works every day. He’s a hard-working guy, he’s tough, he’s physical. He’s got to continue to do that and work hard every day.”
During Tennessee’s fifth practice on Wednesday, To’oto’o was paired with Peterson during drills. Working with the inside linebackers, the freshmen duo followed Bituli and junior Will Ignont, who were first through each drill.
“J.J. (Peterson) is still in a black jersey,” Pruitt said. “He’s right at – I guess this will probably be four months in two weeks – so he’s about ready to go full contact on Monday, or Tuesday of next week.”
Peterson was limited in the last half of spring practices and didn’t play in the Orange & White Game. Now, he’s about ready to be a full go and has slowly progressed during fall camp thus far.
While To’oto’o and Peterson are progressing with the inside linebackers, Crouch has been working with the outside linebackers. The North Carolina native was an early enrollee in December and worked as the ‘buck’ linebacker on third downs in hopes of the Vols finding a pass rusher opposite of Taylor.
“It’s only practice four,” Pruitt said of Crouch. “Right now, he’s learning a lot of the first and second down stuff.”
“The big thing with him is playing on offensive tackles – just the difference in the size and getting used to doing that. He’s another guy whose motor is always running and he’s flying around. Lots of times he’s not doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing, but he’s a playmaker.”
Most of the top-tier teams are afforded the luxury of easing players like Crouch, Peterson, and To’oto’o into their programs. They might even be able to redshirt at other schools like Alabama or Georgia. But if the Vols are going to achieve their goals in 2019, they need the trio of freshmen to step up alongside Bituli, Taylor, and Ignont this upcoming season.