KNOXVILLE — The position with the most proven depth on Tennessee's defense entering preseason practices, which start Friday, is linebacker.
The group features a mix of young talent and veteran playmakers, and if there's one lesson to remember from the tenure of former coach Butch Jones, it's that the Volunteers might need all of it and more to make it through the season.
Injuries to key linebackers Darrin Kirkland Jr., Cortez McDowell, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and others served as critical blows to former defensive coordinator Bob Shoop's efforts to improve Tennessee's defense the past two seasons.
The Vols have turned the page on that era, but their inside linebackers have been shaped by those trials, while their outside linebackers are converted defensive ends who will be tasked with rushing opposing quarterbacks this season.
Daniel Bituli took advantage of Tennessee's rash of injuries by making 23 tackles in the opener last season, when he was a sophomore. With a solid mix of speed and size, Bituli is a consistent tackler and could be a key cog at one of the inside linebacker slots in the new 3-4 defensive scheme. Redshirt juniors Kirkland and Quart'e Sapp have battled injuries during their careers but are seasoned veterans with upside who also should be in the rotation.
One potential wild card in the middle is sophomore Will Ignont, who was recruited by first-year Vols head coach Jeremy Pruitt at Alabama. A former four-star prospect, Ignont could earn a role during the preseason after playing sparingly as a freshman.
"You know, Will has changed his body, increasing his muscle mass and slimming down, which I think will help him," Pruitt said recently. "He's a physical guy, a smart guy. I think he has a bright future."
On the outside, Deandre Johnson, Jonathan Kongbo and Darrell Taylor will have a few new techniques and assignments to learn after switching to linebacker from defensive end. But primarily, their task will remain the same in the new position: rush the quarterback.
The headliner is freshman J.J. Peterson, the top-rated player in the 2019 signing class. Pruitt likes that Peterson is built to play any of the four linebacker positions, but his late enrollment means he will face a steep learning curve if he is going to contribute early. Edge rusher Jordan Allen is a junior college transfer who played for the second-team defense during the spring game.
The position group's coaches are defensive coordinator Kevin Sherrer (inside linebackers) and co-defensive coordinator Chris Rumph (outside linebackers). Having $1.5 million in staff salary working with one position on the practice field should expedite the learning process.
Tennessee struggled to generate a consistent pass rush last season. Johnson, Kongbo and Taylor will need to show improvement in that regard if the Vols are going to have a dramatically better defense this season.
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