The Linebackers: Adding Depth and Toughness

This position is the focus of all observers of Tennessee football going into the 2012 season. This is because it is the Starchild of a 3-4 defense, soon coming to a playing field near you.

Gone to Alabama is last season’s LB coach Lance Thompson. Third Team All-SEC MLB Austin Johnson is also gone due to graduation (as well as part-timer Daryl Vareen). In comes new Defensive Coordinator Sal Sunseri, who characterizes his linebacking corps – he is also assuming the duties of the LB position coach – as perhaps the most talented group of young LBs he has ever coached. Well, it is hard to verify the first part of that statement, but the second part is most definitely true – they are for the most part young. But now there is some semblance of depth, although not nearly enough for a team contending for a conference championship.

The Names

No true freshman has started for the Vols at LB on an opening day since 1972, until last season when two true freshmen started at LB for the Vols: A. J. Johnson (#45) and Curt Maggitt (#56). They grew in years during their first season, so much so that it almost feels they must be seniors by now. All Johnson did was lead the SEC in tackles. For that he was honored as a consensus Freshman All-American. Maggitt had a bucket full of tackles himself.

A big question mark is whether senior Herman Lathers (#34), who was out last season with an anklish injury, will finally live up to his vast potential. He is a monster in the making, if only healthy. This is why Big Herm has been protected during summer camp, watching many snaps from the sideline. He is the family jewels as far as the linebacking corps is concerned – their unmistakable leader. Of late, he has missed some practices and scrimmages due to a quadriceps injury and is back to practice but in a red non-contact jersey.

And there is Jacques Smith (#55), the junior who had a load of troubles on the field last season while playing DE. If Smith breaks through with strong performances for the Vols at LB, there could be some serious heads turning to look at this Tennessee linebacking corps, as national attention was focused on Vol linebackers in the past such as Lucci, Naumoff, Kiner, Reynolds, and Wilson.

Youngster Jordan Williams (#54) will likely be making a move from DE to LB to fill out the important LB corps for the 3-4 scheme. Some other players to see playing time at LB include Channing Fugate (#46), formerly a fullback, John Propst (#47), and Christian Harris (#52). Of note, Fugate has been getting a lot of reps in practice due to the physical problems with Lathers, and is reportedly making the most of the opportunity. The tight end/fullbacks situation is a bit of a mess at the moment because of a rash of recent injuries, and it would seemingly make sense to move Fugate back to his natural FB position, but apparently he is really making an impression in practices and scrimmages.

Others include Raiques Crump (#50), Dontavis Sapp (#41), Willie Bohannon (#86), last season at DE, Nigel Mitchell-Thornton (#42), LaTroy Lewis (#4), and possibly fullback Justin King (#38). Lewis and others may also find some time at DE. Freshman (redshirt) Christian Harris went down during spring practice with an ACL tear, but is reportedly recovering rapidly and has been practicing in a limited fashion. Also, freshman Kenny Byrum (#51) suffered a torn meniscus in practice last week and will likely be lost for the season. Greg King (#48) was also slated for LB duty, but because of all the recent injuries to the tight ends, King has been summoned to switch positions to help out the tight end crisis.

[UPDATE: LaTroy Lewis tore his ACL in a non-contact drill the weekend before the start of the season and had season-ending knee surgery.]

Sophomore Michael Cantwell (#39) and junior Gregory Grieco (#59) are also roster entries.

The Starters

So likely for 2012, the standard linebacking crew will be Lathers, Johnson, and Maggitt. That is a senior and two sophomores.

But with the 3-4, there is the fourth – a sort of all-purpose, roving LB – kind of a cross between LB and DE – who will have his eye on the QB himself as a meal as much as a RB. This is termed the “Jack LB” (JLB), which will likely be either Jacques Smith or sophomore Jordan Williams, who like Smith was a DE for much of 2011, or possibly senior Willie Bohannon.

The Final Word

Lord knows. There is no doubt of the possibility of future greatness at this position (see Johnson and Maggitt). But the key is how this fairly talented but also still thin corps can adapt to the new defensive scheme that depends so much on the linebacking position to do just about a little bit of everything for the defense. Dooley is lucky that the freshmen got so much playing time last season to the point where they can emerge as young veterans with leadership capabilities that are so necessary in Sunseri’s system. Their adaptiveness in September will go a long way as a litmus test for the massive challenges that will face them come October. Fingers are crossed with a lot of optimism for some dynamic play – and health – from this most important position for 2012.

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