KNOXVILLE - Linebacker A.J. Johnson is as sure a thing as there is on Tennessee's defense.
So the Volunteers are giving the All-SEC senior's supporting cast of plenty looks this preseason.
Linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen, the impressive recruiter and former Auburn and North Carolina assistant, is shaping a young unit this August as Tennessee looks to solidify the position beyond Johnson, the Vols' top tackler in 2012 and 2013.
Perhaps Tennessee's best special teams player a season ago, Jalen Reeves-Maybin had two specific offseason goals in mind as he stepped into a larger role with Tennessee's defense.
"Adding weight and becoming a more explosive player," he said. "I feel like we were missing that on defense last year, somebody who can make that explosive play. That's what I want to become.
"I wanna be known as an impact player when I'm out there, so that's what I'm trying to get to."
Up to 230 pounds after arriving last January at around 200, Reeves-Maybin was an impact player for the Vols' special teams units last season, when he racked up a team-leading 11 special teams tackles and memorably blocked a punt that turned into a touchdown against Georgia.
Now Reeves-Maybin has an improved grasp of Tennessee's defense and offers the Vols faster and more athletic, albeit undersized option at on outside linebacker spot.
"He's a lot more vocal," Thigpen said. "He finally knows it. Last year he kind of went into a slump where I kind of felt like he lost a little bit of confidence because he didn't know everything that [Dontavis] Sapp knew, but now he's taken a leadership role on the team on defense. The fact that he knows what everybody's doing, I think he takes a lot of pride in it.
"[Freshmen] Dillon Bates and [Elliott] Berry, they gravitate toward him because of his approach to the game."
The 6-foot-3, 222-pound Bates drew praise from Vols' coach Butch Jones following Saturday night's first preseason scrimmage, and though the freshman may not start, he'll have a big role for Tennessee this season.
"He's still 18, 19 years old and still making a lot of mistakes," Thigpen said. "The thing about him is he has a lot of pride, and he comes in a lot and asks a whole lot of questions. He'll get it.
"Like right now, he's struggling with all the concepts and all the defenses from sub, the penny, the dime. Just a lot of things going through his head, but he understands that he's got to get down each one of those categories. For him, he's got a football knowledge, but right now he's playing a little bit slow. He'll pick it up."
Berry has gotten more looks at linebacker in some of Tennessee's defensive packages, and Jones said late last week the freshman is handling the workload of multiple spots well.
The most direct beneficiary of Johnson's limited action this August, though, is probably Kenny Bynum, the third-year sophomore who flipped from a commitment to Jones and Cincinnati to sign with Tennessee and Derek Dooley in 2012.
The 6-foot-1, 243-pound Bynum played in four games on special teams last season after redshirting with a knee injury in 2012, and he's gotten plenty of looks in Johnson's spot in the middle.
Bynum appears to well ahead of 6-foot, 236-pound freshman Gavin Bryant, and it looks like fellow freshman Neiko Creamer, who arrived in January expecting to play receiver, could be a factor on special teams.
"Kenny Bynum has a good feel for the game," Thigpen said. "[Bryant's] a little bit behind as far as the communication. That Mike position, we say that's the most difficult position on the field, if you're a Mike linebacker. He has to get everybody lined up and know all the checks.
"He's a little bit behind the 8-ball right now trying to catch up, but the kid has a lot of pride, and like Dillon, he asks a lot of questions and comes in and does a lot of one-on-one time."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.