Jalen Reeves-Maybin recorded 14 stops as a freshman last fall but 11 came on special teams, only three from scrimmage. Kenny Bynum had two scrimmage stops as a redshirt freshman in 2013. If you discount Johnson’s 106 tackles, the rest of the holdover linebackers accounted for five scrimmage stops last fall. That’s no misprint. It’s F-I-V-E … as in one less than six and one more than four.
Given this alarming lack of experience, three things probably need to happen for the Big Orange to be competent at linebacker this fall:
-Johnson (6-feet-2, 242 pounds) must have another healthy and productive season.
-Reeves-Maybin (6-feet-1, 219 pounds) needs to thrive at the weakside linebacker spot.
-Newcomers Chris Weatherd (6-feet-4, 225) and Dillon Bates (6-feet-3, 232) had better be playing like seasoned veterans by October.
Remarkably durable, Johnson has played in all 36 games since arriving at Tennessee, starting 34. He must answer the bell for all 12 games this season and crack the century mark in tackles for the third year in a row for the Vols to field a decent defense.
Reeves-Maybin, who led the 2013 Vols in special-teams stops, must exhibit the same knack for tracking and tackling on scrimmage plays. He’s a huge key for the 2014 stop unit.
Weatherd was a four-star JUCO prospect last fall, Bates a four-star high school prospect. Both need to play major roles from Day 1 due to Tennessee’s desperate lack of depth.
Weatherd should benefit from two years of junior college ball and Bates should benefit from his bloodline. Bill Bates spent four years playing safety for Tennessee and 15 for the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, so he has taught his son a lot about defending the pass.
“Growing up and being around football all the time, I don’t remember a time that I didn’t know football,” Dillon said recently. “Talking to my dad every day really helped me understanding the game and the different coverages I’ll have to know.”
That’s fortunate because what’s left after Johnson, Reeves-Maybin, Weatherd and Bates is a bit shaky:
Justin King is a 6-foot-2, 246-pound redshirt sophomore who played fullback as a freshman in 2012 and redshirted in 2013.
Kenny Bynum is a 6-foot-1, 234-pound redshirt sophomore who recorded two tackles last fall, both in the Game 2 blowout of Western Kentucky.
Neiko Creamer is a 6-foot-3, 225-pound mid-term freshman who made the transition from wide receiver to linebacker during spring practice. He should be a good one in time but that time may not arrive till 2015.
Colton Jumper is a 6-foot-2, 218-pound two-star freshman from Lookout Mountain who joined the Vols as an invited walk-on during the spring.
Gavin Bryant is a 6-foot, 233-pound freshman from Jackson, Ala., who brings a four-star rating but is best suited to middle linebacker, the one position that appears solid.
Although Tennessee’s lack of linebacker depth is a concern, it is not necessarily a harbinger of doom. As he showed last season with Johnson, Dontavis Sapp and Brent Brewer, Vol linebacker coach Tommy Thigpen is OK with playing his starters just about every down. In fact, the lack of snaps for backups in 2013 is a major reason there is no meaningful experience beyond A.J. Johnson in the 2014 linebacker corps.
On a positive note: If the Vols can’t get what they need on the outside from Reeves-Maybin, Weatherd and Bates, they can always return newly transplanted Curt Maggitt from end to linebacker. He started at linebacker in 2011 and 2012, proving himself quite capable of filling that role.
Ideally, he won’t have to do so again.
Dillon Bates video interview