The Tennessee linebacker position has been in flux for most of the winter and spring, leading up to practice. The Vols lost Quavaris Crouch and Henry To’oto’o off of last years squad, as they remain in the transfer portal, so depth has been an issue.
With Jeremy Banks and even Roman Harrison continuing to rehab injuries, the position has been a point of emphasis for new LB coach Brian Jean-Mary. As the group heads into their final few practices of the spring, Jean-Mary is proud of the guys who are here for stepping up.
“First, I like to commend those guys. Our numbers aren’t very high. The guys who have been out there, a hardworking crew. There’s a lot of buy-in with that group. They want to get out there and get better every day. A lot of guys with not a lot of experience, but they fight their butt off every day in some adverse situations. I want to commend them. As far as on the individual level, you have a bunch of guys that are athletic, have a lot of hunger and are just trying to learn football right now. They’ve gotten better. The transformation from the first practice to this last one being practice No. 12 has been amazing. I’m very proud of those guys.”
Being so thin at a position gives an opportunity for other players to learn the role and try to fill a needed gap. But, this also puts some players in a position to play early in their careers, which maybe they weren’t expecting when they arrived.
“It’s been a challenge, but like I said, I commend that unit because they have never complained even when our numbers are low. They go out and play. It’s about opportunity and being prepared when you have that opportunity. We have a lot of guys that probably thought they didn’t see themselves playing this early in their careers, and they’re getting the opportunity to impress coach (Josh) Heupel and coach (Tim) Banks. They’re making the most of it. We take it day-by-day. Obviously, our numbers are small, but we will never use that as an excuse. We are going to go out there and try to perform at the highest level. We are going to do what we can to play the Vol brand of defense.”
As for Jeremy Banks and Roman Harrison, they continue to be involved in the meetings and even on the field learning the new scheme brought in by DC Tim Banks. For Jean-Mary, he understands this is a process and appreciates how much work those two put in off the field.
“They’re in every meeting. Every installation meeting, they’re in. They’re able to watch film with us. Most of the things we are going to grade them on will be the mental side, understanding what we are trying to get done. Obviously, new terminology, new schemes. That’s where they’re going to make the most is learning what to do. They’ve been doing great in the rooms. We treat them just like everybody else in the classroom where they’re able to answer questions, watch tape and take notes. I think they’re going to be ahead of anyone else as far as coming back in the fall because they’ve been able to sit in on every meeting and have a general understanding of what we’re trying to get done on defense.”
One unlikely contributor coming into spring practice, but has taken on the roll and is learning the new spot is long snapper Will Albright. It’s a benefit for Jean-Mary to have him working with his group, not knowing what the fall season could hold, especially at depth.
“Will is a team player. Obviously, he was recruited here as a long snapper, but he is an athletic long snapper. Based on our numbers, he wanted to do what he could to help the program. He also sees that as an opportunity for what he does. If you are able to play linebacker, tackle, take on blocks and understand the linebacker position, that only enhances what you can do as a long snapper and vice versa. He’s done a great job for us. He’s been rotating in every day, showing his toughness. He’s one of the guys that has had a really good spring. We have been very excited for what he has been able to show so far.”
So, for this Tennessee group to continue making strides and building up options at the position, they’re going to need guys like Solon Page and Kwauze Garland to continue picking up every aspect of the position. This group doesn’t have the luxury of overwhelming depth at such a key position.
Until the Vols get a few key players back, the coaching staff will continue to rely on players that are still learning the postion. Not the best circumstance, but Brian Jean-Mary appreciates the effort.