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Tennessee Linebacker ‘Fighting His Butt Off’ To Return From Injury

Photo via Tennessee Athletics

It was a trying start to BYU transfer linebacker Keenan Pili’s first year in Knoxville. The Las Vegas native transferred to Tennessee for his final season of college eligibility and earned a starting linebacker spot beside Aaron Beasley over the offseason.

Pili was poised to be one of the most important Tennessee defenders this season but played just 30 snaps before suffering an upper body injury that’s sidelined him to date.

The inside linebacker isn’t knocking on the door of returning just yet but Tennessee coach Josh Heupel praised Pili’s work ethic and progress in his recovery during the SEC Coaches Teleconference Wednesday.

“He’s not ready to go in this one, but we’ll continue to see where he’s at,” Heupel said. “He’s fighting his butt off to get back out there as soon as possible. Obviously, we feel like he’s a difference-maker.”

While Pili has been sidelined since the season opener, the transfer linebacker has remained a key part of the 2023 Vols. Coaches and teammates alike have praised Pili’s involvement since the injury and Pili traveled with the Vols to Gainesville for the Florida game.

The 6-foot-3, 240-pound linebacker’s leadership has been important as a number of underclassmen have stepped into a larger role since the injury.

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“Our young guys are continuing to step up at that position, but Keenan is a special leader and still has been even while he’s been on out,” Heupel said. “One of the first ones in the building. Constantly watching film. I think he’s been a real help to the young guys that are out there on the football field.”

Sophomore Elijah Herring has started in Pili’s absence but a number of Vol linebackers are increasing their role this season. Sophomore Kalib Perry is a part of Tennessee’s third down defense package and freshman Arion Carter and Jeremiah Telander continue to impress with more opportunities.

Against South Carolina, all four linebackers played double digit snaps in meaningful moments. It’s the most Tennessee’s rotated at linebacker in Heupel’s tenure.

“I think the more (the younger linebackers) play, the better they will get, the more comfortable they will get,” Tennessee defensive coordinator Tim Banks said earlier this week. “You always want to play to guys’ strengths and put them in the best possible situation to be successful, but there is no substitution for playing. There really isn’t. I looked up one time [and] I saw (Jeremiah Telander) and (Arion Carter) out there at the same time. It’s just what it is, two true freshmen playing in big football games, but that is what they signed up for. That is why we recruited them.”

Tennessee is hoping Pili will return from injury later this season and provide a boost to the Vols’ linebacker core. Until then, Pili will work to help Tennessee’s young linebackers improve.

The quarter of underclassmen face another challenge this week as Tennessee welcomes Texas A&M to Neyland Stadium. Kickoff is at 3:30 p.m. ET with CBS broadcasting the game.

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