Spring Breakdown: Inside Linebackers

InsideTennessee brings you a 10-part series of position battles heading into spring practice. Be sure to come back to InsideTennessee for all your Volunteer athletics information.

Much like his sophomore counterpart Curt Maggitt, Gainesville, Fla., native A.J. Johnson locked up a position in the starting lineup for the 2012 season with his superb play as a true freshman.

Johnson, a 6-foot-3, 245-pounder, led all SEC freshmen with 80 tackles and seven tackles for loss. In 12 games and 10 starts Johnson was able to establish himself as one of the more dominant forces onthe Tennessee defense.

The sophomore defender had his breakout game when he was voted SEC Freshman of the Week at then-No. 2 Alabama, but if there was any area where Johnson was lacking it was speed. As an outside linebacker in the 4-3 defense, Johnson was often exposed on the edge, but no longer in defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri's new 3-4 alignment.

Sure, Johnson is locked in for one inside linebacker spot, but who will join him in quarterbacking the UT defense? There are several candidates beginning with John Propst.

Tennessee linebacker John Propst (47)
Propst, a junior out of Hoover, Ala., has stared mostly on special teams, but saw action at middle linebacker as a freshman in the absence of then-senior Nick Reveiz. The 6-foot, 245-pounder received 2010 Coaches Freshman All-SEC honors.

The junior 'backer has seen gained experience in 23 games, recording 18 tackles and two tackles for loss. With the most experience Propst has to be the leader in the clubhouse alongside A.J. Johnson.

Behind Propst, look out for redshirt freshman Christian Harris. The former three-star prospect by Scout.com has added significant weight since stepping on campus out of Woodstock, Ga., tipping the scales at 6-foot-2, 235 pounds.

Harris was voted Second Team All-State by the Associated Press as a senior and has had a full year to adjust to the college game. Spring practice will be a vital proving ground if Harris is to get on the field.

And don't forget about senior Nigel Mitchell-Thornton. He played in nine games as a junior as a reserve linebacker and special teamer, registering eight tackles. Austin Johnson's graduation means it could be Mitchell-Thornton's time to shine.

Surprises sometimes pop up and this spring's could center around fullback Channing Fugate. Fugate, who was beaten out by Ben Bartholomew for starting fullback honors, might get a look on defense.

While Fugate has little experience on the defensive side of the football, Vols fans have seen the transition work with success when Austin Johnson did the same following two seasons at the fullback position.

As spring practice nears, keep a close eye on the inside linebacker battle. It could be one of the more fierce set to take place on Haslam Field beginning March 26.

Channing Fugate

Chris Price is a staff writer for InsideTennessee.com. He was previously an intern for the site for two years before graduating from the University of Tennessee. He joined the InsideTennessee team in 2009.

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