We get you ready for the start of spring practice for Tennessee’s football team with our position preview series. Our first piece looked at Tennessee’s secondary. Up next is a look at the Vols’ linebackers.
Seniors: Jordan Allen (RS), Deandre Johnson
Juniors: Kivon Bennett (RS), Solon Page III
Sophomores: Aaron Beasley, Quavaris Crouch (out), Roman Harrison, J.J. Peterson (RS), Henry To’o To’o
The biggest question facing Tennessee’s defense in 2020 will be how the Vols replace their leading sacker and leading tackler from the last couple seasons. Both of those players — Darrell Taylor and Daniel Bituli — were two of the most productive defenders for UT over the last two seasons, but both have graduated and are set to go to the NFL.
Aside from star rising sophomore Henry To’o To’o, Tennessee’s linebacking corps is full of unknowns this spring.
To’o To’o will figure to lock down one of the Vols inside linebacker spots, as he was phenomenal as a true freshman starting alongside Bituli last season. But with little returning experience across the board at the position and a lack of overall quality depth, UT’s linebackers will be pushed hard by their new position coaches, Shelton Felton and Brian Niedermeyer.
This group was dealt another blow when it was announced that rising sophomore Quavaris Crouch would miss the entire spring as he rehabs from offseason shoulder surgery. This spring figured to be a big one for Crouch as he continued to learn the nuances of the inside linebacker spot. Crouch played at both outside and inside linebacker as a freshman, but it was expected that he would be groomed more into an inside linebacker for 2020.
Now that Crouch will miss the spring, does he remain at outside linebacker since he’ll miss crucial reps over the next couple months? Or will UT’s coaches still have him work towards becoming an inside backer?
Whatever the decision on Crouch, Tennessee has a lot to try and work out at linebacker this spring.
Tennessee ranked third in the SEC in total sacks in 2019, totaling 34 as a team. But the Vols will be losing a third of that production just from Darrell Taylor and Daniel Bituli alone, as those two combined for 11.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss in 2019.
Deandre Johnson and Kivon Bennett are the Vols’ most experienced returning linebackers, and both will be fighting for the top pass rushing spot at outside linebacker. Bennett was a breakout player on UT’s defense last season, getting his first real action of his Tennessee career. As a redshirt sophomore, Bennett totaled 27 tackles, six tackles for loss, and two sacks. Johnson had 13 total tackles, 4.5 TFLs, and 2.5 sacks. The 6-foot-4, 246-pound Miami native has 5.5 career sacks and 9.5 career TFLs in 31 career appearances with the Vols.
Aside from those two, Tennessee only really has rising redshirt senior Jordan Allen and rising sophomore Roman Harrison available as outside linebackers in the spring.
Allen’s time at Tennessee has been marred by injuries, and he missed the entire 2019 season because of that. The former JUCO prospect appeared in nine games in 2018 and totaled six tackles and a pass defended. If he can provide any sort of depth and can remain healthy, that would be a big plus for the Vols.
As for Harrison, he flashed some potential in his debut campaign with the Vols, especially towards the end of the season, getting a sack in each of Tennessee’s last two games of the year. Though Harrison is a physical specimen, he’s still fairly raw as a linebacker and has a lot to learn. This spring will be pivotal for him, and he could make a big move given how desperate UT is for pass rushing ability right now.
At inside linebacker, Henry To’o To’o needs some help. Without Crouch in the mix, Tennessee likely will rely on just J.J. Peterson and Solon Page III as options there in the spring. There’s a chance that Aaron Beasley remains at linebacker as well. Beasley signed on as a defensive back in the 2019 class, but due to all the attrition the Vols faced at inside linebacker last season, he practiced primarily as an inside linebacker for most of the season. He may need to stick there again in the fall to help bolster UT’s numbers.
Peterson has largely been a disappointment at Tennessee thus far, and this spring is probably more important for him than just about anyone else on UT’s roster. Peterson has a prime opportunity to fight for a starting spot alongside To’o To’o, and the Vols need someone to step up.
The 2018 season was all but lost for Peterson after he arrived much later than he was supposed to, only getting to campus after the Vols’ first game of the season. Because of that — and because he showed up to campus out of shape — Peterson redshirted in 2018 and appeared in just four games. Last season, Peterson’s contributions were once again minimal, as he totaled just 11 tackles in 13 games.
Page has been a seldom-used linebacker in his UT career. He appeared in just five games last season and had seven tackles.
If Beasley sticks at inside linebacker for the spring, he has a chance to make a name for himself. Tennessee has a definite need for linebackers to assert themselves in spring practices, and the opportunity is right there for Beasley. If Peterson or Page can’t grab the bull by the horns, Beasley will have a chance to do so.
The Vols’ linebacking corp will undergo a radical transformation after the spring, however. Depth shouldn’t be an issue in the summer and fall, though most of that depth will be from sophomores and freshmen.
Tennessee will welcome in Tyler Baron, Morven Joseph, Bryson Eason, and Martavius French to their linebacker group in the summer and fall, and there’s the chance that either Len’Neth Whitehead or Tee Hodge eventually move from running back to linebacker as well. Incoming freshman Tamarion McDonald is expected to start his UT career as a defensive back rather than linebacker.