Terrific tackler

One former Tennessee linebacker did a lot of memorable things during his days as a Vol. Miss tackles wasn't one of them.

In addition to being one of the program's most underrated players of the past 20 years, Eric Westmoreland was perhaps the program's most efficient tackler of the past 20 years. His form wasn't always pretty but it was always effective.

"Tackling was just getting 'em down any way possible," he recalled during a recent stop in Knoxville. "It didn't have to look good. I think that's where a lot of guys get in trouble these days: They try to make the big hit. You don't have to make the big hit to get somebody down."

As fans are acutely aware, tackling is becoming a lost art. Today's players are so intent on delivering a bone-jarring lick that will be replayed on ESPN SportsCenter that they routinely jolt the ball-carrier but fail to knock him off his feet.

Westmoreland, a Jasper native who started at outside linebacker for the Vols in 1998, 1999 and 2000, says peer pressure made him a better technician. Sloppy tackling wasn't tolerated at Tennessee in those days - not even in practice.

"We practiced at a high level of intensity, and we always went against each other (best vs. best) to make ourselves better," he said. "It was hard to miss tackles in practice and live it down - with your teammates getting on you and all of that - so we took it upon ourselves to be better as individuals and better as a unit."

Many of today's players are "head-hunters," always looking to hit an opponent high and knock him backwards. Westmoreland says this makes them predictable and easy to counter.

"You've got to switch it up," he said. "As a defender, you don't want to be known as somebody that's always going to hit high. At the same time, you can't be known as somebody that's always going to hit low. You have to change it up and hit whatever the ball-carrier's going to give you. It's all about mastering your game and going full-speed every play."

Known as "E-mo" among teammates, Westmoreland had the good fortune to play alongside some of the greatest defenders in Tennessee history - guys like Leonard Little, Shaun Ellis, Al Wilson, Raynoch Thompson, Terry Fair, Dwayne Goodrich, Deon Grant, John Henderson, Darwin Walker, Albert Haynesworth, Will Overstreet and Andre Lott. To keep these standouts healthy, the Vols did very little full-speed tackling in practice.

"After (preseason) camp we didn't do any live tackling," Westmoreland recalled. "It was more of what we called 'thudding up,' where we would wrap the ball-carrier up and just hold him until everybody got there. That allowed you to stay on your feet. The coaches never wanted guys to go to the ground for injury purposes.

"That thud drill helped a lot because we were always running to the ball. You had to have good mechanics and good techniques about how you approached the ball-carrier because you had to break down."

The strategy clearly worked because Tennessee's defense was downright spectacular en route to the national title when Westmoreland was a sophomore in 1998. Good tackling wasn't the only thing the '98 Vols had going for them, however.

"The key was our camaraderie with each other," he said. "All of our guys were very close-knit. We didn't have any jealousy, even though we had a lot of star power on that team, especially defensively. We had a lot of first- and second-round draft picks on that team but I think we were very close. We'd go to each other's house, we'd have cookouts on the weekends. If you saw one of us, you probably saw 20 of us together going out to eat and things like that.

"We all knew each other very well, so when we were on the field you didn't have to do a lot of talking. It was like second nature, so we just went out and played. And everybody respected each other. Respect is a big factor when you're playing a team sport. When you trust the guy beside you to have your back and be in position, then you're going to have a good team."

Westmoreland was an integral part of Tennessee teams that went 11-2 in '97, 13-0 in '98, 9-3 in '99 and 8-4 in 2000. He led the Vols with 83 tackles in 2000 and was a third-round pick in the NFL Draft the following spring. After six solid years in the NFL, he now serves as an assistant coach at Baylor School in Chattanooga.

Like most former Vols, Westmoreland has struggled to cope with Tennessee football's recent decline. The past three seasons produced records of 5-7, 7-6 and 6-7.

"It's hard to watch, only because I know what the program has been," he said. "I know what legacy we left behind. I know the players that were there before I got to school - the legacy they left and what they taught us. It's hard to see Tennessee go through the struggles they're going through but I feel that, with the right guidance, they'll be back."

In second-year head man Derek Dooley, Westmoreland believes the Big Orange has the right guidance.

"I feel like he can provide that guidance but, at the end of the day, it's still up to the players," the former Vol said said. "I'm a firm believer that you can't blame a coach for everything. The coach is going to put you in a position to win ballgames. But, regardless of what play he calls, you as a player has to go out there and make that play work."

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