Tennessee Football’s Linebacker Depth ‘Going To Be Great’ After Two Year Climb

Tennessee Football

Tennessee FootballTennessee freshman LB Arion Carter (No. 7) during fall camp in Knoxville. Photo via Tennessee Athletics.

When Josh Heupel and linebacker’s coach Brian Jean-Mary arrived at Tennessee two years ago the Vols’ linebacker depth was dismal.

In Heupel’s first spring at Tennessee, Aaron Beasley was suspended and the Vols had yet to land Juwan Mitchell out of the transfer portal. Tennessee had few bodies and few proven SEC linebackers.

But as Heupel and Jean-Mary enter their third season in Knoxville, Tennessee’s inside linebacker room is as intriguing as any on the defensive side of the ball.

“Every coach, I think if you asked them what their number one goal is would say quality depth,” Jean-Mary said during the Vols’ first week of fall practice. “When you don’t even have the bodies to go out there and compete, it’s hard. I say it all the time that the best coach in the world is competition. You’re going to get the most out of guys if they know that guy behind them is nipping at their heels and is able to play at a high level.”

While Beasley was extremely unproven two years ago, he’s now one of the top linebackers in the SEC. Beasley totaled 76 tackles and three sacks (all in the Orange Bowl) a season ago and is the lead linebacker on Tennessee’s roster entering the season.

The Vols added veteran BYU linebacker Keenan Pili out of the transfer portal after he totaled 62 total tackles for the Cougars a season ago. The 6-foot-3, 238-pound linebacker ran with the starters in the open portions of Tennessee’s practices last week and brings the Vols experience.

“He’s a bigger guy, but he’s super athletic,” Jean-Mary said of Pili. “We don’t mind putting him in space, blitzing him or putting him into coverage. I want to be careful about saying traditional because we like to consider both of our guys versatile enough to be outside and inside linebackers.” 

While the Pili addition gives Tennessee a reliable linebacker the real excitement in Jean-Mary’s room in the underclassmen.

Elijah Herring had a real — albeit small — role on the Vols’ defense as a freshman totaling 11 tackles and two sacks. Fellow sophomore Kalib Perry performed well in mop-up duty a season ago.

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Tennessee signed a decorated linebacker recruiting class a season ago. Jalen Smith was a tackling machine playing in the highest classification of Georgia high school football and Jeremiah Telander performed well in his prep career in the Peach State.

But the crowing jewel of Tennessee’s 2023 linebacker class was top 100 recruit Arion Carter. The Vols beat out Alabama for the Smyrna native. Carter burst onto the scene with a phenomenal senior season that earned him Tennessee Gatorade Player of the Year honors.

Carter looks more like a senior than he does a freshman physically, and could earn a real role for Tennessee’s defense this season.

“There’s never going to be perfection,” Jean-Mary said of Carter. “Youth always equals mistakes, and we just want to limit the amount. The thing with Arion is that he plays so hard, fast and is a great athlete so he’s able to overcome some of those mistakes that maybe some other people can’t. We are not going to spoon-feed him. We are going to keep force-feeding him and putting him in difficult situations so he learns from them and if he does it right, he can explain why he did it right. We feel confident that if he does it wrong, we are going to be able to correct it and make sure he does it right the next time.

“Obviously, we are expecting big things from him the rest of this camp.”

The biggest question for Tennessee’s linebacker room is how many of the underclassmen are ready to contribute this season. Many of the young linebackers are poised for big careers, but whether their times are now is still unclear.

If a couple of the young linebackers can play at a high level this season, Tennessee’s linebacker group can be the Vols’ best defensive units and one of the SEC’s best linebacker units. If not, Tennessee will be reliant on its veterans to play an abundance of snaps again this fall.

“With the depth that we’re building, we are going to be able to play multiple guys,” Jean-Mary said. “We feel like we are going to get them to play at a high level. I think we are getting to the point where we can be a third, fourth or even fifth team deep at linebacker. … The depth aspect is going to be great.”

Author: Ethan Moore