Right now, it’s uncertain whether or not the 2020 football season will be played as planned. But we’re moving ahead and providing our position preview series ahead of the start of Tennessee’s fall camp as if things will proceed as normal. After taking a look at the defensive back position, we take a look at the Vols’ linebackers next.
Seniors: Deandre Johnson
Juniors: Kivon Bennett (RS), Solon Page III (RS)
Sophomores: Henry To’o To’o, Quavaris Crouch, Roman Harrison, J.J. Peterson (RS), Aaron Beasley
Freshmen: Tyler Baron, Morven Joseph, Bryson Eason, Martavius French
The Heart and Soul
It all starts and ends with Henry To’o To’o at the linebacker position. Really, the entire defense starts and ends with the sophomore linebacker. With Daniel Bituli graduating and moving on to the NFL, To’o To’o becomes the unquestioned leader of the defense, as well as the heart and soul.
To’o To’o had an incredible freshman season. The Sacramento, California native finished second on the team in tackles (72) in 12 starts out of the 13 games he played in. To’o To’o added five tackles for loss and a half sack on his way to earning Freshman All-American honors from 247Sports and The Athletic. He was named to the SEC All-Freshman team by the coaches.
His tremendous freshman campaign has garnered himself quite a bit of hype heading into 2020. To’o To’o has been named to the preseason award watch list for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, the Butkus Award, and the Bednarik Award.
Who steps up next to To’o To’o?
Outside of To’o To’o, there are plenty of questions at the linebacker position. There is quite a bit of talent to work with, however, for assistant coach Brian Niedermeyer, who was named the inside linebackers coach after coaching the tight ends the previous two seasons. Niedermeyer takes over for Kevin Sherrer, who accepted a job with the New York Giants.
With To’o To’o stepping into Bituli’s role from a communication and leadership standpoint, someone needs to step up and fill To’o To’o’s shoes from a season ago. Quavaris Crouch will get the first crack at starting next to To’o To’o despite having offseason shoulder surgery. The sophomore worked primarily at outside linebacker last season, but he will transition inside. Crouch played in all 13 games last season and recorded one start. He finished with 28 tackles, one tackle for a loss, a half-sack, two pass breakups, and four quarterback hurries.
J.J. Peterson and Jeremy Banks are the other inside backers who could potentially start next to To’o To’o this season, while Aaron Beasley and Bryson Eason are youngsters with long shot to start. Solon Page should serve as a veteran depth piece.
Yes, that Jeremy Banks. Banks is expected to be back in August when fall camp begins after being suspended for nearly the last calendar year following an incident where a video of him talking inappropriately to a female police officer hit TMZ. It would be surprising to see camp end with Banks listed as a starter due to his extended time away from the team, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Banks be a key contributor by season’s end as talent has never been an issue for the Memphis native.
Peterson is the name that most will overlook as a potential starter because of the slow start to his career after signing with the Vols as a highly-ranked recruit. The Georgia native has struggled to adjust to college football, but he’s also been banged up. Pruitt noted on multiple occasions towards the end of last season that Peterson was healthy and starting to improve. The head coach still has faith that Peterson can be productive, and fans should as well.
Getting to the Quarterback
Not only does Pruitt’s defense have to replace Bituli’s production, but it must replace second-round pick Darrell Taylor, who finished his career on Rocky Top with 19.5 sacks (10th-most in program history), 26.5 tackles for loss, and 118 tackles over his 43-game career. In addition to losing Taylor to graduation, the outside linebacker spot opposite of Taylor last season was never locked down by one player. So, when you factor in the loss of Taylor, Tennessee enters fall camp with both outside linebacker spots up for grabs.
As is the case at inside linebacker, Pruitt has a new assistant coach at outside backer. Shelton Felton takes over for Chris Rumph, who accepted a coaching position with the Houston Texans. And just like Niedermeyer, Felton has some talent to work with despite that talent not having much experience.
Kivon Bennett and Deandre Johnson are the lone veterans of the bunch and will get the first crack at locking down both spots. Bennett will almost definitely be one of Pruitt’s starting outside backers after he came on very strong to end last season. He finished second on the Vols with 6.0 tackles for loss and was outstanding against Indiana in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl, totaling a career-best 2.0 tackles for loss, three tackles, and one quarterback hurry. In the game prior, against Vanderbilt, he posted two tackles, a tackle for loss, a sack and two quarterback hurries.
Johnson is the lone senior linebacker. He’s appeared in 31 career games for the Vols, but he’s only started four games. He appeared in all 13 games last season, making three starts. Johnson finished with 13 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks to go along with four hurries and one forced fumble. He’ll get the first crack at starting next to Bennett, but a couple of intriguing young prospects will be breathing down his neck.
Roman Harrison appeared in 11 games last season as a true freshman. Harrison will certainly see an extended role in 2020, but will it be as a starter, or will he continue to back up Bennett and Johnson? Harrison had a sack in each of the final two games of the season last year.
Newcomers to watch for
While Harrison will certainly battle Johnson and Bennett for playing time, a pair of incoming freshmen will be returning the favor and gunning for a starting position in an effort to pass up Harrison on the depth chart. Tyler Baron and Morven Joseph certainly have the talent to come in and have an immediate impact.
Baron signed with the Vols over Ohio State and Kentucky out of Knoxville Catholic High School, while Jospeh chose Tennessee over the likes of Florida State and Florida. Coaches viewed Baron during the recruiting process as someone who has the ability to come in right away and steal a starting spot at outside linebacker as an edge rusher. Joseph, because of where he already is from a strength standpoint, has been viewed in that same light. If Baron and Joseph can produce immediately, it would be a tremendous boost to a group of edge rushers that lack experience.
The other newcomer to watch for is Bryson Eason. Eason was one of three linebackers to sign with Tennessee out of Whitehaven High School in Memphis along with Martavius French and Tamarion McDonald. The 2020 season will likely serve as a redshirt season for French, while McDonald will begin his career in the secondary at safety. For Eason, however, he has the same potential as Baron and Jospeh to come in and contribute immediately. Eason likely won’t push for a starting job, but it would not be surprising to see him in the two-deep at some point this season.