Vols' Keenan Pili balancing linebacker life and married life

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee sixth-year senior linebacker Keenan Pili, who signed with Brigham Young back in 2016, has the unique task of juggling college football with married life.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee sixth-year senior linebacker Keenan Pili, who signed with Brigham Young back in 2016, has the unique task of juggling college football with married life.

Former Brigham Young University linebacker Keenan Pili is adjusting to Tennessee's football team just like the 26 other newcomers who joined the Volunteers either through the transfer portal or as midyear enrollees out of high school.

Pili is just at a different stage of his life.

"It's been really smooth," the 6-foot-3, 238-pounder from Provo, Utah, said this week in a news conference. "I talk to my wife (Lindsey) about it all the time. It's been an easy transition for us, and I tell her how the team culture here is really good and strong.

"You come in, and you never know how it's going to be, but Tennessee has been really loving, and the players have been great to me."

Pili (pronounced PEE-lee) and his wife are in Knoxville — "I didn't know he was married. I was like, 'What?'" sophomore linebacker Kalib Perry said this week — after his lengthy career at BYU that included serving as a defensive captain the past two years. He amassed 72 tackles in 2020 before having his 2021 season halted after three games by a torn anterior cruciate ligament, but he came back last year to tally 62 tackles, five tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

Tennessee was an appealing transfer destination due to the program's trajectory under Josh Heupel and the departures of linebackers Jeremy Banks and Juwan Mitchell from last year's 11-2 team.

"He's a tough kid, and his movement skills are great," Vols linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary said. "He's very, very committed in learning what to do and doing it our way. He's trying to take a little more of a leadership role, which is harder for guys when they come in from the transfer portal and they're trying to get into the culture of their new team, but he's been really, really good.

"So far, he's been everything we've expected."

The Vols had Friday off and will conduct their first spring scrimmage Saturday, which also will serve as their seventh of 15 allotted workouts.

Pili described Tennessee's defense as much more aggressive than what BYU does. He added that inhaling the playbook during winter workouts helped his adjustment into spring drills and that there has been a bit of a fine line to walk from a leadership standpoint.

"When I came in, I didn't want to be too vocal or too out there as far as a transfer coming in," Pili said. "I wanted to work from the ground up, and I hope that my actions can speak for themselves and that everything will flow however it needs to flow. I'm the old man on the team, and it's kind of a funny joke.

"If I can bring any kind of leadership and experience in any way, that's what I hope to do. Other than that, I just hope my play can speak for itself."

Now, about that age and experience.

Pili will compete this fall as a 25-year-old, having signed with the Cougars in 2016, when the Vols still had two seasons remaining under Butch Jones. He signed the year before former Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker signed with Virginia Tech and two years before current Vols quarterback Joe Milton III signed with Michigan.

From 2017-19, Pili served a full-time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Orlando, Florida. He played for the Cougars as a redshirt freshman in 2019, when they came to Tennessee and pulled out a 19-16 triumph.

"The one thing I remember from that game was just the crazy atmosphere," Pili said. "Even to this day, I remember how loud that game was. I think they caused us to have two false starts at the beginning of the game. It was a cool experience."

The Cougars went 11-1 in 2020, culminating that season with a 49-23 drubbing of UCF in the Boca Raton Bowl. Pili racked up nine tackles and earned defensive MVP of the bowl, which was also the final game for Heupel as coach of the Knights.

"It was funny when he first brought that up to me," Pili said. "We played them in the COVID year, and I think they had a lot of guys missing. We kind of took it to them."

Pili insists that Tennessee fans each Saturday will feel his energy and effort to the whistle on every play. Then it will be Lindsey who experiences his softer side.

"It can be tough at times, but I always feel blessed," Pili said of a marriage coinciding with college football. "I feel like I found a good one. It can get hard sometimes because you're away so much, and she's waiting there and wanting to see you and wanting to spend time together, but she's as bought in as me.

"She will massage me and do anything to help my body and make me feel healthy."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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