Mistaken identity

One Tennessee football player was taken aback by a question from his coordinator earlier this year. Sign in or subscribe now for the details.

Willie Bohannon will not soon forget his first face-to-face meeting with new Tennessee defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri.

"The second or third day Coach Sal came over and said, 'What are you doing in a D-line meeting?'" Bohannon recalled. "I was confused, then I realized, 'OK, it's not the same old defense.'"

Indeed. There is no room in Sunseri's defensive scheme for 6-foot-2, 245-pound linemen, which prompted the new coordinator's opening comment to Bohannon.

"He eventually told me I was moving to linebacker," Bohannon said. "I'm still 245 pounds but I've gone from being an undersized D-lineman to a big linebacker."

Bohannon, a fifth-year senior from Mobile, Ala., isn't a total stranger to linebacker play but his introduction to the position was exceptionally brief.

"My senior year in high school I played three or four snaps," he said, "so it's been brand new for me this year."

Because they face more double-teams and get fewer opportunities to make plays, most linemen dream of playing linebacker. Bohannon and fellow end-turned-linebacker Jacques Smith discussed the topic regularly during Tennessee's just-concluded spring practice.

"Me and Jacques talk about that all the time," Bohannon said. "We were talking about that one day in practice, how weird it is not being with the D-linemen. We contemplate on that a lot, but it's a good change."

Although Bohannon still battles 300-pound offensive linemen on every play, fending off blocks as a standup linebacker is less taxing than fighting through blocks as a down end.

"We still have to take 'em on — you have to be physical, no matter what position you're playing — but it's a lot different taking on a tackle as a D-end and taking on a tackle as a linebacker," Bohannon said.

Although eager to make the move, his switch from end to linebacker has not been easy. In addition to learning a new position, he was learning a new scheme with new terminology.

"The first week was rough because I was trying to learn the new defense and learn linebacker," he said. "It was a mental thing that first week."

Making the adjustment even more difficult was the fact Bohannon was learning three linebacker positions, not just one.

"I was having to cipher out the difference between each position because I had to learn three different positions, and I had to be able to differentiate each one," he noted. "That's the hardest part. If the plays are called in fast, you have to know what you're going to do."

The way Bohannon sees it, he's actually involved in four positions these days.

"I'm playing Sam (strong side) and I had to learn both of the outside linebacker spots (Will and Jack)," he said. "And I'm still pass rushing from end sometimes, so I guess you could say I'm playing four positions."

Whereas defensive linemen operate in a relatively small area, linebackers operate "in space," routinely ranging from sideline to sideline. That makes quick feet a must.

"Footwork has been the biggest adjustment," Bohannon said. "You're trying to learn how to step and how to do specific things coming from a two-point stance. Learning to play out of a two-point stance has been the biggest thing. Last year (working under line coach Lance Thompson) we had the option to play out of a two-point or three-point stance. Now I've had to learn how to get my feet right in a two-point stance."

The catch phrase on defense all spring was "getting upfield" and crashing into the offensive backfield. Bohannon found that amusing.

"Really, the universal objective of all defenses is to penetrate the backfield and make the running back arc outside," he said. "Getting push is a universal thing."

Bohannon thought Tennessee's defensive linemen got a lot of push during spring drills, giving their offensive counterparts some problems.

"We're getting a lot of push because we do so many things and the offensive have to think so much," he said. "Sometimes they over-think things."

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