Coming into the 2019 season, Tennessee didn’t have a lot of returning experience at inside linebacker, but they at least had enough bodies to not worry about depth purely from a numbers perspective. Daniel Bituli returned as one of the most experienced players on UT’s entire defense, and Will Ignont played a good amount of snaps in 2018 and looked poised to contribute as a starter in 2019. Throw in the emergence of Shanon Reid in the spring, the move of Jeremy Banks back to linebacker, and the addition of four-star Henry To’o To’o to the group, and Tennessee’s inside linebacker corps looked pretty solid to start the year.
Fast forward six weeks into the season, and nothing has panned out like Vol fans hoped, least of all at inside linebacker.
Daniel Bituli sat out the first few weeks of the season as he dealt with a minor knee issue, leaving Ignont and To’o To’o to man the inside backer spots. Once Bituli came back, both Ignont and Shanon Reid saw the field very little, and both decided to transfer off UT’s roster heading into Tennessee’s bye week.
Then, last Friday before Tennessee’s contest against Georgia, Jeremy Banks was kicked off the team due to multiple circumstances stemming from his arrest, comments made on camera towards a police officer, and an incident back in August when he threatened a female UT student.
All that has left the Vols with a numbers problem at inside linebacker.
Tennessee has two solid starters in Bituli and To’o To’o, but it’s the depth behind them that’s worrisome. The Vols only have two other scholarship players who were brought in to play inside linebacker on the roster, and those are redshirt freshman J.J. Peterson and redshirt sophomore Solon Page III. The two have appeared in a combined 10 games (with Peterson being responsible for nine of those games), and Page hasn’t recorded a single tackle in his UT career. Peterson has one stop so far this season, and he totaled one last year as well, giving him two career tackles.
In a desperation move, Tennessee has been practicing freshman defensive back Aaron Beasley at inside linebacker for a few weeks just to help bolster numbers. The 6-foot-1, 212-pound freshman has the type of body to fit in well with the group, but he’s not experienced playing the position.
The Vols have one more option at inside linebacker they can try, and they elected to do just that this week at practice.
Freshman Quavaris Crouch has played the first five weeks of the season at outside linebacker. The former four-star recruit has flashed potential from that spot, and he’s played more and more as the season has progressed.
Back in the spring, Crouch practiced at inside linebacker as an early enrollee. He moved to outside linebacker in fall camp, and it looked like his future might be at that position.
But due to Tennessee’s dearth of numbers at inside linebacker, he was moved back inside this week at practice. Head coach Jeremy Pruitt is confident Crouch can handle the move and thinks the freshman may even be able to contribute right away at his new position.
“When we recruit linebackers, we would like to sign guys that are what we would call ‘four-for-four.’ That means they could play any four of the (linebacker) positions,” Pruitt said this week during the weekly SEC coaches teleconference. “That means they’re instinctive enough to play behind the line of scrimmage at inside linebacker and have awareness to diagnose plays and have ability to drop into coverage, can play man-to-man, are good blitzers. And then you have guys that can line up on the edge, can win in the C-area, have ability to rush the quarterback.
“Q is one of those guys. If we were going to sign four linebackers in a class, we would like for two of them to be that way, and maybe one of them be an inside linebacker only and the other one be an outside linebacker only. But he’s a guy that can do both.”
The former Harding University High School standout has made an impact over the Vols’ last three games, totaling 11 tackles and a quarterback hurry on defense and getting a carry for four yards and a first down against Florida. On the season, Crouch has 11 tackles, three quarterback hurries, and two passes defended.
Now, he may be competing with fellow freshman Henry To’o To’o for playing time at inside linebacker. Or, at the very least, he may be able to come in and spell his freshman teammate.
Despite Crouch not practicing at inside linebacker since April, Pruitt thinks the young athlete is smart enough and talented enough to play the position in a game if needed. According to the second-year head coach, Crouch’s transition back to inside linebacker has been “seamless” this week.
“He practiced 15 days of (inside linebacker) during spring training. He’d done it the entire summer,” Pruitt explained. “We didn’t move him to outside linebacker until fall camp. I always like to take young guys like that and teach them inside-out, a guy like him. We knew he was a guy that could play both positions. It’s a lot easier to teach them to go forward than it is to go backwards, and we teach everything by concept.
“It’s really been a seamless transition, him going back and taking a few reps there at inside (linebacker).”
Last week against Georgia, Bituli and To’o To’o played almost every single defensive snap of the game. That showed in the second half, as those two and the rest of UT’s defense were worn down by the strong Bulldog offense.
Tennessee needs a boost at inside linebacker outside of their two starters, and Crouch could provide just that moving into the heart of the Vols’ SEC schedule.