Tennessee preseason preview: Linebackers

Tennessee preseason preview: Linebackers

July 29th, 2016 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee head coach smiles at Jalen Reeves-Maybin (21) as the Tennessee Waltz is played. With them is Jones's son Andrew. Standing at left are Dimarya Mixon (40) and Paul Bain (97). The Vanderbilt Commodores visited the Tennessee Volunteers in SEC football action November 28, 2015.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

BY THE NUMBERS

220: Career tackles for Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Tennessee’s leading tackler in each of the past two seasons. After making 14 stops, mostly on special teams, as a freshman, Reeves-Maybin posted consecutive seasons of 100-plus tackles. In the past two years he chipped in 25 tackles for loss, eight sacks and four fumble recoveries, too.

66: Darrin Kirkland Jr.’s 66 tackles last season were the fourth-most by a Tennessee freshman, trailing only Eric Berry (86 tackles in 2007), A.J. Johnson (82 in 2011) and Derek Barnett (72 in 2014).

74: Career tackles by Tennessee’s returning linebackers not named Reeves-Maybin or Kirkland. And Cortez McDowell, the team’s top special-teams tackler in 2014 and 2015, accounts for nearly half (31) of those tackles. The only other linebackers on the roster with double-digit career tackles are fifth-year senior Kenny Bynum and junior Colton Jumper.

STAR POWER

Tennessee's duo of Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Darrin Kirkland Jr. stacks up pretty well against any other tandem in college football. The former is already a star, while the latter is nearly there after an impressive freshman season. Both should play in the NFL someday.

In two seasons as a starter, Reeves-Maybin racked up 206 tackles, 25 for lost yardage. He's become one of the Volunteers' top defensive playmakers. Thanks to his leadership on and off the field, his value extends beyond the statistics.

One of the many what-ifs of Tennessee's 2015 involves Kirkland. Would the Vols have started better than 2-3 if the eventual All-SEC freshman team selection hadn't sat out spring practice and been ready to start from the opening game? After taking over a starting spot three games and two series into the season, Kirkland clearly improved.

Kirkland had 44 tackles and all but one of his five tackles for loss, along with a sack, an interception and a fumble recovery, in the seven games following Tennessee's open date, and he's expected to build off the flourishing finish as a sophomore.

PROMISING PROSPECTS

Earlier this week Reeves-Maybin said he's eager to see how two players perform this preseason. One was safety Rashaan Gaulden, who's back after missing last season. The other is Quart'e Sapp, and it wasn't the first time this offseason Reeves-Maybin singled out the sophomore linebacker.

"He's a linebacker that's been coming along a lot, and I've seen his maturity level go up a lot in the last year," Reeves-Maybin said.

Sapp made three tackles in four games on special teams before his freshman season was cut short by foot surgery, but he was everywhere during spring practice. The four-star recruit out of Atlanta has a nose for the football and the speed and athletic ability to find it. He's added strength this summer and could get on the field sooner than later.

FRESH FACES

The Vols have two freshman linebackers in Daniel Bituli and Ja'Quain Blakely.

In leading Nashville Christian to a state title, Bituli terrorized the state's smallest classification and won the Mr. Football award. Defensively he had 89 tackles, 20 for loss and 10.5 sacks, recovered six fumbles and scored two defensive touchdowns. He also averaged nearly 19 yards and scored seven touchdowns on 15 carries.

Blakely also helped his Colquitt County (Ga.) team win a state title last season.

Both linebackers were rated as four-star prospects by Rivals.com. Bituli is more of a middle linebacker, while Blakely is rangier and fits in better at an outside spot. They will have the chance to help on special teams as freshmen.

STRONG SUITS

Reeves-Maybin and Kirkland are two proven playmakers, and their partnership will be vital to Tennessee's defensive success in 2016.

New coordinator Bob Shoop will rely on the dynamic duo to anchor and lead his defense. Reeves-Maybin and Kirkland feed off each other and played really well down the stretch of last season. The Vols will need them operating at the same level and higher to go where they want to go this season.

The defensive outlook changes significantly if Tennessee loses either star for an extended period of a game or the season.

QUESTION MARKS

It's a mystery who is Tennessee's third-best linebacker.

Cortez McDowell has been a standout on special teams, but his experience on defense is limited. Colton Jumper started last season at middle linebacker, but he struggled and played sparingly once Kirkland took over. Sapp is an exciting prospect, but he's entirely unproven.

Dillon Bates, who missed nearly all of his freshman season and sat out most of the spring as well, has had trouble staying healthy. Gavin Bryant and Elliott Berry are special-teams players. Fifth-year senior Kenny Bynum has six tackles in three career starts.

If the Vols are unable to identify another linebacker or two they can trust, they won't be able to spell Reeves-Maybin and Kirkland very often and run the risk of wearing them down by playing them too many snaps.

There's also a question of what Tennessee will do in situations requiring a three-linebacker formation.

The Vols started three linebackers in four games last season. Shoop employed the system more often at Vanderbilt and Penn State, but it's difficult to see him continuing it with the Vols. At this juncture Tennessee's fifth defensive back, whether it's Malik Foreman or a third safety, is better than its third linebacker.


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