Unlike a year ago, the Vols will have a fairly deep linebacking core in 2014.
Last year Tennessee went the entire season without one of their most energetic linebackers in Curt Maggitt, due to an injury suffered towards the end of the 2012 season. Although he’s back this season, though, linebacker may not be the only position you can expect to see him at.
Throughout spring camp Butch Jones experimented with several different things on both sides of the ball. Possibly the most shocking experiment was placing Maggitt at defensive end in some situations. Surprising, yet not so surprising at the same time, was it actually worked. Maggitt showed his versatility and hunger to get back on the field after sitting out an entire season a year ago, so don’t be surprised to see him all over the place on the defensive side of the ball.
Next to Maggitt’s return, the next best thing that could happen for the Vols at linebacker, an on the defense in general, is A.J. Johnson’s decision to return for his senior season.
Johnson was the undoubted leader of the defense in 2013, and has really been the only bright spot of the Tennessee defense over the past two years now. He finished 2013 with a team-high 106 tackles, 60 of which were solo tackles which was also a team-high. Although he was projected to go as high as third round in this year’s NFL Draft on some experts’ draft boards, Johnson decided to return for his senior season on Rocky Top, and will undoubtedly be a team leader on the defense, if not the team as a whole, yet again.
Jalen Reeves-Maybin may be one of the most underrated players in the Vols’ linebacking core. Since the Vols were thin all around on the defensive side of the ball, Reeves-Maybin found himself playing at safety a few games one year ago because he was the only one versatile enough to play the position. Making that move did nothing but improve his game greatly.
Over the offseason Reeves-Maybin has flourished at the linebacker position. He has the ability to move from sideline-to-sideline and make tackles all across the line, but perhaps his most impressive attribute has been his ball-hawking skills. During spring camp the rising sophomore made a couple of impressive interceptions, and showed he could be a real threat in the pass defense, which has been an area the team has struggled in over the past few seasons.
Some of the newcomers you can expect to see receive ample playing time in 2014 are Dillon Bates, Jakob (Yah-kub) Johnson, and Neiko Creamer.
Out of the three, the newcomer you are bound to hear the most praise over is Dillon Bates, who is the son of Vols’ legend and former Dallas Cowboys’ linebacker Bill Bates. The praise (Dillon) Bates receives is well deserved, though. At 6-foot-3, 225-pounds, the Vols’ legacy incomer not only has great size, but speed as well. He has great instincts when it comes to defensive discipline, and has the ability to play the run and the pass. Great things are expected early of the young Bates, and he should be given the opportunity to prove himself as soon as fall camp begins.
Although it may be too early to tell, depending on the position Jones and staff decide to place Maggitt, the Vols expected starting linebackers will be Maggit, (A.J.) Johnson, and Bates/Reeves-Maybin. Although one may “win” the starting job over the other, both Bates and Reeves-Maybin are sure to see their fair share of time on the field, and may even split time at the position evenly.
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