Tennessee sophomore linebacker Henry To’o To’o is entering just his second season on Rocky Top, but it feels as if the California native has played a lot of football for the Vols.
That’s because he has, to a certain extent, having played in all 13 games last season and starting 12 of those contests. Despite playing a lot as a true freshman, To’o To’o still feels like a normal sophomore, though he recognizes this season will look different from a responsibility standpoint.
“I just feel like I have to play a bigger role now,” To’o To’o told the media last week over Zoom. “I have to be able to lead the guys, no matter who it is. Age doesn’t matter when it’s time to be a leader. You’ve got to be a leader, not only on the field, but off the field, to be able to do the right things all the time.
“I wouldn’t say I feel like a veteran. I wouldn’t say I feel old, but I feel like that I have to lead. Now I have to do a better job of setting the example and to be able to confront guys when they’re not doing the right things.”
To’o To’o had Daniel Bituli to lean on in the middle of the defense last year. The two were the top two tacklers on the team, but Bituli has since graduated, leaving To’o To’o to takeover the reigns as the quarterback of the defense in 2020.
Bituli was the main signal-caller in Jeremy Pruitt’s defense. But according to Tennessee’s head coach, To’o To’o was plenty capable of being the main signal-caller, even as a true freshman. In fact, he was on occasion.
“That was one of the things that will be added to him this year, being the signal-caller on defense, making sure everybody is lined up, communication,” Pruitt told the media Friday evening following practice No. 3 of fall camp. “He’s kind of the quarterback of the defense.
“One thing he’s really worked on is his coverage. Whether it’s zone coverage or playing man-to-man. He’s really changed his body this offseason. I don’t know exactly where his weight is at. He’s probably a little lighter but probably stronger now than he was.”
To’o To’o’s goal throughout the offseason was to lose about 10-12 pounds. When the Vols were away on quarantine due to COVID-19, he weighed around 240 lbs. To’o To’o arrived back on campus 15 pounds lighter at 225 lbs.
“That’s kind of where I want to be,” To’o To’o said. “I wanted more lean mass, more muscle. I feel like (Tennessee strength coach) A.J. (Artis) put us through a great workout while we were at home for us to do. He sent us workouts every single day, for guys that didn’t have weights, for guys that did have weights. Being able to follow his program, it really changed my body and changed the way I’m playing now and being able to move faster.”
To’o To’o now feels like he can do more as a linebacker entering his second year. He also feels like can lead better because of how he saw Bituli lead last season. As To’o To’o steps up as a leader, he simply wants to do what Bituli did after the former Vol showed him the ropes.
To’o To’o will look to take the basis of his relationship with Bituli and apply it to his relationship with sophomore linebacker Quavaris Crouch, who appears set to takeover the starting linebacker spot next to To’o To’o.
“Me and Q (Crouch), it’s not only just me and Q, it’s the whole entire (linebacker) room,” To’o To’o said. “We all know that we have to fill the shoes of Daniel Bituli. So we all have to put in that extra work, that extra time. So it’t not necessarily only two people, it’s the entire (linebacker) room. The guys that we have in there are doing a tremendous job of kind of picking up the life that Bituli left off. Now it’s on to us to be able to carry that torch.”
Not only will To’o To’o have a new partner in crime at insider linebacker, but he’ll also have a new position coach leading the way. After Kevin Sherrer took a similar position with the New York Giants, Tennessee recruiting ace Brian Niedermeyer moves to the defensive side of the ball to coach the inside linebackers. Niedermeyer was the Vols’ tight ends coach the previous two seasons.
Niedermeyer was To’o To’o’s primary recruiter when To’o To’o was deciding between Tennessee and Washington during the 2019 recruiting cycle. The two are very close and To’o To’o is excited about taking their relationship to the football field.
“It’s a true blessing to have a great coach like him,” To’o To’o said of Niedermeyer. “He’s excited about every singe thing that we do. It’s a blessing to have him recruit me and to have him as a coach because he hasn’t changed. He’s still the same person that I know and that I met since day one.
“He knows the schemes, he knows how linebacker is supposed to be played. So being able to have Niedermeyer there has been a true blessing. One thing I love about him, he brings that juice every single day. He wants the best out of us every single day.”
Tennessee is scheduled to begin its 2020 season on Sept. 26 with a trip to South Carolina to kickoff its 2020 10-game conference-only schedule.