KNOXVILLE -- If this were late in the season, Tennessee football coach Lane Kiffin probably would plug in redshirt freshman Herman Lathers or true freshman Nigel Mitchell-Thornton for injured middle linebacker Nick Reveiz.
But the Volunteers still have eight regular-season games left, and seven are within the Southeastern Conference. So Kiffin is looking for Mr. Right as opposed to Mr. Right Now for the "Mike" spot.
That's why Kiffin put junior weakside linebacker Savion Frazier in with the starters in Monday's practice, and that's why Frazier's first middle linebacker play in a game since middle school could come Saturday night in Neyland Stadium against undefeated Auburn.
"We need to do what's best not just for today, but for the long run," Kiffin said. "There may be an answer that would be the best if we were playing today but may not be the best for down the road, as far as moving people as opposed to somebody who's been there. We're going to look at a bunch of different things this week and figure it out as fast as we can."
All-SEC weakside linebacker Rico McCoy played in the middle for the first few days of spring practice. UT could play more nickel packages and bring hard-hitting safeties Eric Berry and Janzen Jackson closer to the line of scrimmage. Lathers could emerge from two months of injury-plagued frustration and take the job. Mitchell-Thornton could seize the spot.
But Frazier got the first crack, and he and his teammates were optimistic that he'd stick.
"I'm excited," Frazier said. "I appreciate the opportunity, and I can't wait for it, and I can't wait to take advantage of it."
"I haven't played in the middle since high school, and that really doesn't count. But I just see linebacker as linebacker, from the middle to the outside. If you can play, you can play."
And teammates said Frazier can play.
Junior strongside linebacker LaMarcus Thompson called Frazier "the team's fastest 'backer." Junior quarterback Nick Stephens went even further.
"He's a very fast-twitch, very fast player," Stephens said. "Watching him run this offseason, I'd honestly have to say he's one of the faster guys on the team. And since he's playing linebacker, that gives us an advantage, I think, having more speed out there.
"Nick Reveiz is one of my best friends, and I wish I could take that back for him, but we've got to move on. Nick wants us to move on, and we all know Savion's going to do a good job."
Frazier, like most UT linebackers from the past decade, isn't particularly large for his position. But at 6-foot-2, 221 pounds, he's about five inches taller and a tad heavier than Reveiz.
"Nick's a great player, and no matter what, you can't completely replace him," Frazier said. "Nick Reveiz is a hard worker. He's the ultimate player. He's the kind of guy every coach would want.
"I just want to focus on the best I can be, though. I just want to be the best Savion I can be and try to bring what I can do to the table."
Thompson, who signed with Frazier, said Frazier's best would be plenty good enough.
"Savion definitely can play Mike," said Thompson, who missed the Ohio game with a back injury but said he'll play against Auburn. "He's a tough, physical guy, and his speed is going to help, too. He can get around you really fast.
"It's a bad situation for Nick, and that's a big blow to our defense, but I'm sure Savion is going to take advantage of the opportunity to get on the field. He's going to work hard to learn the Mike 'backer position, and he's going to do good."
Stephens laughed at the notion that UT's linebackers -- about 220 pounds across the board -- were too small for one of college football's consistently tough conferences.
"We've always kind of had the faster linebackers, and that's what we have right now," Stephens said. "But you can't anything bad about that, because of the way our defense has played the past few years and holding up their end of the bargain.
"If they keep doing what they're doing, we'll be fine."
But that's a bigger "if" without Reveiz.
And while the Vols have plenty of time to finish this season, they don't have much wiggle room to stay in the SEC race.
"We have to make sure we're not playing a guy just because he knows what to do, if we have guys that can be better and help you get your best three guys on the field," Kiffin said. "We don't know that answer right now. We're going to continue to look at it."