A season ago, Tennessee’s defense was anchored by the leadership of then-senior linebackers Daniel Bituli and Darrell Taylor.
That side of the ball for the Vols finished in the top-half of the SEC by the end of the 2019 season, with younger players seeing playing time and stepping into key roles.
On Thursday, Tennessee second-year defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley spoke to the media about the on-going competition at inside linebacker through two weeks of fall camp, including some names that were thrust into playing time last season at the position.
“It’s an open competition,” Ansley said. ” We have some guys back from last year that were pretty young.
“Quavaris Crouch, who we played at inside backer and outside backer, has kind of been a journeyman his first year. We are kind of getting him stationary at the inside backer position, the money position, which is a really good spot for him. Backing him up right now is Jeremy Banks. They’re fighting tooth and nail for that one position. Behind Henry (To’o To’o), a guy like Aaron Beasley, he’s kind of a tweener who’s played safety and played linebacker. Now he’s full-time linebacker rotation. We have four really good guys that are playing and rotating through and the cream will rise to the top of who the best man is. The best two will play.”
Banks, who has played both linebacker and running back in his first few seasons at Tennessee, returned to the team earlier this month after being dismissed in September 2019, while Crouch split time between inside and outside linebacker as well as running back on offense.
Although players like Bituli and Taylor were defensive leaders, Henry To’o To’o took on a leadership role even as a true freshman last season. In his rookie campaign, To’o To’o appeared in all 13 games for the Vols and finished second on the team in tackles before being named a Freshman All-American.
According to Ansley, To’o To’o has improved both physically and mentally ahead of his sophomore season.
“The first thing with Henry is he’s changed his body,” Ansley said. “He’s shredded some body fat and added some muscle. He’s gotten quicker at the point of attack. He’s a lot better laterally, changing the directions and covering the running backs out the backfield.
“He’s doing a really good job of trying to take on the leadership role of Daniel (Bituli), Nigel (Warrior) and Darrell (Taylor). Those were three really good leaders that we lost and that’s one thing we’re trying to develop during camp is everybody doing things the right way all the time on and off the field.”
Tennessee is scheduled to begin its season on Sept. 26 when it kickoffs at 7:30 p.m. ET on the SEC Network with South Carolina. Following a road trip to the Palmetto State to begin the season, the Vols will return home on Oct. 3 for their home-opener with Missouri.