Natural progression

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At Tennessee, safeties growing into linebackers is a lot like tadpoles growing into frogs.

It's a natural progression.

No recent development, Vol safeties have been evolving into linebackers for at least 20 years. Al Wilson, one of the greatest linebackers in program history, arrived on campus as a safety prospect. So did fellow ‘backers Kevin Burnett, Scott Galyon, Eric Westmoreland, Anthony Sessions, Ryan Karl and Nevin McKenzie.

Continuing this time-honored tradition, Tennessee has two former safeties manning the two outside linebacker spots this preseason. Brent Brewer (6-feet-1, 221 pounds) is running first-team on the strong side, Dontavis Sapp (6-feet-2, 227 pounds) on the weak side.

Linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen, who also has coached defensive backs in his career, says the progression from safety to linebacker is one that routinely produces positive results.

"Where most (linebackers) suffer in college is the passing game," Thigpen said. "When you've got guys that have been in the secondary, then move to linebacker, they understand how important it is for the linebackers to be involved in the pass coverage … not just sit there and stare at the quarterback.

"Those guys get it. They understand how to flip their hips and run to the curl flats. When you get guys who can run like Sapp and Brewer it's good because they know defensive-back play and they can explain it to the linebackers."

More and more modern offenses try to create mismatches by spreading the defense and flooding the field with speedy receivers. Hybrid safety/linebacker types such as Sapp and Brewer are the perfect antidote.

"It's just the range that they have, being able to play in space," Thigpen explained. "There's so much cover-down, 11 personnel and nickel work going on in today's game that you have guys (linebackers) playing in space. You want guys to be able to play in space, so those two guys being in the back end (secondary) before gives them an advantage."

Brent Brewer's (right) second run at outside linebacker in Knoxville has him poised to be an opening-day starter.
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)
The biggest challenge for most college linebackers is one-on-one pass coverage. The fact Sapp and Brewer have been covering receivers in practice for much of their college careers obviously helps them.

"Tremendously," Thigpen said. "They don't panic. Playing out there (open space) is usually not in our (linebacker) world. We're box guys. DBs are usually out there in space, so offenses try to take advantage by getting (linebackers) out in space. Guys like Brewer and Sapp, they don't panic when they get out in space."

Whereas Sapp spent two years at safety before moving to linebacker, Brewer spent three years in the secondary before switching to linebacker last spring. The transition was not a smooth one. In fact, defensive coordinator John Jancek thought the experiment was doomed to fail.

"I'm going to be honest with you: When he left in the spring I wasn't sure (he could handle the change)," Jancek said. "We moved him from safety and in the spring we were really concerned about how he was going to fit in at linebacker."

Thigpen was concerned, as well.

"In the springtime, coming from the back end (secondary) to the front (seven) he was a little hesitant about taking on linemen," the linebackers coach said.

Fortunately for Tennessee, those days are long gone.

"Now he's gotten a lot stronger," Thigpen said of Brewer. "He's probably the most vicious guy we've got when it comes to getting off of blocks and kind of setting the mood of the room. He really strikes you. He streams hard on every single play."

Jancek agrees that Brewer has made huge strides since spring.

"He has really done a great job," the coordinator said. "He has really worked hard and I'm really proud of Brent."

Brewer and Sapp aren't the only safeties/turned/linebackers on Tennessee's 2013 defense. Freshman Jalen Reeves-Maybin (6-feet-1, 210 pounds) made the switch a week into preseason camp. He's new to the position but his athleticism and football IQ are helping him make a reasonably smooth transition.

"He'll learn as he goes along," Thigpen said. "As time goes on he'll start getting the calls. We see that in practice now; he's not afraid of contact by any stretch of the imagination. He gets after it.

"He's a really smart and cerebral kid, and that's kind of our motto to him. He's just smart and tough, and he possesses a lot of good qualities of a linebacker."

See camp highlights of Reeves-Maybin as both a safety and linebacker in the video below:


Inside Tennessee Top Stories

\r\n\r\n
","mobileBody":"At Tennessee, safeties growing into linebackers is a lot like tadpoles growing into frogs.

It's a natural progression.

No recent development, Vol safeties have been evolving into linebackers for at least 20 years. Al Wilson, one of the greatest linebackers in program history, arrived on campus as a safety prospect. So did fellow ‘backers Kevin Burnett, Scott Galyon, Eric Westmoreland, Anthony Sessions, Ryan Karl and Nevin McKenzie.

Continuing this time-honored tradition, Tennessee has two former safeties manning the two outside linebacker spots this preseason. Brent Brewer (6-feet-1, 221 pounds) is running first-team on the strong side, Dontavis Sapp (6-feet-2, 227 pounds) on the weak side.

Linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen, who also has coached defensive backs in his career, says the progression from safety to linebacker is one that routinely produces positive results.

\"Where most (linebackers) suffer in college is the passing game,\" Thigpen said. \"When you've got guys that have been in the secondary, then move to linebacker, they understand how important it is for the linebackers to be involved in the pass coverage … not just sit there and stare at the quarterback.

\"Those guys get it. They understand how to flip their hips and run to the curl flats. When you get guys who can run like Sapp and Brewer it's good because they know defensive-back play and they can explain it to the linebackers.\"

More and more modern offenses try to create mismatches by spreading the defense and flooding the field with speedy receivers. Hybrid safety/linebacker types such as Sapp and Brewer are the perfect antidote.

\"It's just the range that they have, being able to play in space,\" Thigpen explained. \"There's so much cover-down, 11 personnel and nickel work going on in today's game that you have guys (linebackers) playing in space. You want guys to be able to play in space, so those two guys being in the back end (secondary) before gives them an advantage.\"

The biggest challenge for most college linebackers is one-on-one pass coverage. The fact Sapp and Brewer have been covering receivers in practice for much of their college careers obviously helps them.

\"Tremendously,\" Thigpen said. \"They don't panic. Playing out there (open space) is usually not in our (linebacker) world. We're box guys. DBs are usually out there in space, so offenses try to take advantage by getting (linebackers) out in space. Guys like Brewer and Sapp, they don't panic when they get out in space.\"

Whereas Sapp spent two years at safety before moving to linebacker, Brewer spent three years in the secondary before switching to linebacker last spring. The transition was not a smooth one. In fact, defensive coordinator John Jancek thought the experiment was doomed to fail.

\"I'm going to be honest with you: When he left in the spring I wasn't sure (he could handle the change),\" Jancek said. \"We moved him from safety and in the spring we were really concerned about how he was going to fit in at linebacker.\"

Thigpen was concerned, as well.

\"In the springtime, coming from the back end (secondary) to the front (seven) he was a little hesitant about taking on linemen,\" the linebackers coach said.

Fortunately for Tennessee, those days are long gone.

\"Now he's gotten a lot stronger,\" Thigpen said of Brewer. \"He's probably the most vicious guy we've got when it comes to getting off of blocks and kind of setting the mood of the room. He really strikes you. He streams hard on every single play.\"

Jancek agrees that Brewer has made huge strides since spring.

\"He has really done a great job,\" the coordinator said. \"He has really worked hard and I'm really proud of Brent.\"

Brewer and Sapp aren't the only safeties/turned/linebackers on Tennessee's 2013 defense. Freshman Jalen Reeves-Maybin (6-feet-1, 210 pounds) made the switch a week into preseason camp. He's new to the position but his athleticism and football IQ are helping him make a reasonably smooth transition.

\"He'll learn as he goes along,\" Thigpen said. \"As time goes on he'll start getting the calls. We see that in practice now; he's not afraid of contact by any stretch of the imagination. He gets after it.

\"He's a really smart and cerebral kid, and that's kind of our motto to him. He's just smart and tough, and he possesses a lot of good qualities of a linebacker.\"

See camp highlights of Reeves-Maybin as both a safety and linebacker in the video below:

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