Aside from Henry To’o To’o, Tennessee doesn’t have a lot of proven production at linebacker heading into spring practices for the 2020 season. The Vols lost both their sack leader (Darrell Taylor) and leading tackler (Daniel Bituli) off their 2019 roster, and UT lacks a lot of overall experience in the unit.
Adding a transfer to the linebacker room would help bolster the group, and it appears the Vols are one of many schools interested in arguably the hottest name in the NCAA transfer portal right now.
On Monday, North Dakota State linebacker Jabril Cox announced on social media that he was putting his name in the transfer portal as a grad transfer. He thanked NDSU for his three years there, but he expressed a desire to prove himself at the FBS level.
“One of the goals I set for myself was to play football at the FBS level,” Cox wrote in his post. “By entering the graduate transfer portal, I have the opportunity to explore that dream.”
According to Max Olson of The Athletic, Cox has already been followed (and potentially contacted) by about four dozen FBS programs. Among those interested are programs like Alabama, LSU, Florida, Texas, Florida State, Washington, Notre Dame, Miami, and Michigan.
Another team that’s interested? Tennessee.
Several Tennessee coaches have followed Cox on Twitter, and as of the writing of this article, Tennessee appears to be one of the few schools Cox also has an interest in. Per Olson, Cox has only followed back four of the dozens of coaches who followed him on Twitter, and Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt is one of them. The other three are LSU head coach Ed Orgeron, LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, and Alabama defensive coordinator Pete Golding.
The 6-foot-3, 233-pound linebacker is such a hot commodity on the transfer market because he proved to be one of the best defenders in the entire FCS level in his three years at NDSU.
Cox was named the Missouri Valley Conference Freshman of the Year and Newcomer of the Year in 2017, earned MVFC Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2018, and was named an All-American by the Associated Press in both the 2018 and 2019 seasons. He was a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award — the award given annually to the top FCS defensive player — and helped NDSU win three FCS National Championships.
In 45 career games with the Bison, Cox totaled 258 tackles, 32 tackles for loss, 14 sacks, six interceptions, 18 passes defended, three fumble recoveries, and a forced fumble. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns as well.
Tennessee has a definite need at linebacker for proven playmakers. Kivon Bennett and Deandre Johnson are the Vols’ most experienced returning linebackers, but they’ve not been full-time starters before. To’o To’o actually returns with the most career starts after being UT’s full-time starter at inside linebacker as a true freshman in 2019.
Outside of those three, Tennessee only has Quavaris Crouch (who will be missing the entire spring as he recovers from offseason surgery), Jordan Allen, J.J. Peterson, Solon Page III, and Roman Harrison at linebacker. Rising sophomore Aaron Beasley could also make the move to linebacker permanently.
The Vols do welcome in several linebacker options in their 2020 class after spring practices conclude, but UT has a serious lack of proven experience at linebacker. While Cox hasn’t played at the FBS level, he’s proven he has enough skill to dominate at the FCS level and has garnered a ton of interest from high-level programs.
He certainly has the respect of new LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini.
Pelini served as the head coach of Youngstown State from 2015-19, and his squad faced NDSU and Cox several times. The 52-year-old coach is a believer in Cox’s ability after having coached against him.
“I think he’s an NFL guy,” Pelini told reporters back in October before Youngstown State’s game against NDSU. “I think he’s really good in coverage. He’s a good open-field tackler. Sometimes I don’t know what the NFL guys look for, but how you’d watch this kid on film and say that you don’t want this kid on your football team — I mean, you don’t know much about football if anybody says that.”
Coming out of high school, Cox wasn’t highly recruited by FBS programs. He played quarterback, receiver, safety, and linebacker in Raytown in Kansas City, but he tore his ACL in his junior season and missed the opportunity to go to camps and get more scholarship offers.
At NDSU, that injury hasn’t held him back, and he’s been one of the best defenders at the FCS level. Now, Cox wants to prove himself at a Power Five school, and Tennessee appears to have his attention.