New look at linebacker

InsideTennessee gives you keen insights into Vol football. Check out this story on the new-look linebacker corps:

Tennessee assistant Tommy Thigpen must have thought he opened the wrong door the first time he entered the linebacker meeting room this preseason: The familiar faces were missing.

Brent Brewer and Dontavis Sapp, last fall’s starting outside linebackers, have exhausted their eligibility. So have 2013 backups John Propst, Raiques Crump and Greg King. Christian Harris transferred to another school, then Curt Maggitt and Jakob Johnson transferred to a new position (defensive end).

Bottom line: When Thigpen scans the linebacker room just about the only familiar faces he sees are senior A.J. Johnson and sophomore Jalen Reeves-Maybin … and Reeves-Maybin is barely recognizable after adding 19 pounds since last fall.

“He’s up to 230 pounds,” Thigpen said. “He’s a lot stronger than he was last year, so he has a lot of confidence. He’s playing better with his hands, getting off blocks.”

Despite the added heft, Maybin has experienced no loss in agility. He’s as mobile as ever.

“The hardest thing for a linebacker to do is play in space,” Thigpen said, “and he’s a natural at playing in space because he’s an ex-DB and running back, so he does a lot of things really naturally.”

In addition to more bulk, Maybin has more familiarity with the defense and his role in it. That helps a guy play with more aggression and explosion.

“He knows all the calls and all the checks,” Thigpen said, adding that Maybin is a role model for the newcomers in the linebacker room. And — make no mistake — there are a bunch of newcomers in that room these days.

“With so many young guys — (Dillon) Bates, (Chris) Weatherd and (Gavin) Bryant — we’ve got a lot of inexperience in the room,” Thigpen conceded. “They’re talented kids; we’ve just got to grow ‘em up really fast, catch ‘em up with the lingo and the techniques. Right now they’re swimming quite a bit but they’re coming in every day with a boatload of questions, so I know it’s important to ‘em.”

Bates (6-feet-3, 232 pounds) and Bryant (6-feet, 236) are four-star high school recruits. Weatherd (6-feet-4, 225) is a four-star transfer from the JUCO ranks. All three are getting on-the-job training.

“They get a chance to see how it’s done right with A.J. and Maybin,” Thigpen said. “They get a visual of how it’s supposed to look with those two guys in there, and that’s probably the quickest way they can learn.”

Bates has a good shot to win the third starting spot because he’s a natural outside linebacker.

(Danny Parker/

“He has so much pride,” Thigpen said. “He goes out and tries to do everything right. He comes into the meeting room with a list of questions. If he doesn’t know something he’s going to ask. You can tell he’s got a great football background with his father (Bill) being in The League for so long. He’s got a great idea of what concepts are and how teams are going to try and attack you. We’re pleased with where he’s at but he’s still got a long way to go.”

Weatherd, conversely, played a lot of defensive end in junior college and is still new to linebacker.

“Weatherd is really athletic but he’s a kid that’s been playing with his hand on the ground for a long time,” Thigpen said. “Now he’s standing up, which is an adjustment for him.”

Because he was late getting approval from the NCAA Clearinghouse, Weatherd missed spring practice and the summer workout program. Once he catches up in terminology and conditioning, however, he should be a major contributor.

“He’s got some intangibles that we don’t have,” Thigpen said. “He’s a natural pass rusher. He’s sleek, he’s fast, he’s athletic. We’ve just got to catch him up to speed.”

Another intriguing newcomer is Neiko Creamer, a 6-foot-3, 225-pounder who has much to learn after moving from wide receiver to linebacker during the spring.

“Spring practice helped him a lot,” Thigpen said. “He’s big, he’s strong, he can run and he’s physical. I think we’re going to get something out of him. He’s going to play a lot on special teams for us, and the more comfortable he gets at the (linebacker) position the more he’ll play.”

Redshirt sophomores Kenny Bynum (6-feet-1, 238) and Justin King (6-feet-2, 245) return from last fall but they recorded just two stops each in 2013. Besides, they appear stuck at middle linebacker behind Johnson (6-feet-2, 242), who is more instinctive these days.

“It’s a simple game to him now; he plays a lot faster,” Thigpen said. “He’s playing like a whole different player to me. He’s a lot more aggressive, a lot more assertive in his calls, and he’s beginning to hold everybody accountable. He gets in kids’ face if they don’t know their jobs.”

Johnson’s leadership could prove invaluable in helping the young linebackers mature quickly.

“They look up to A.J.,” Thigpen said. “He’s the Alpha male in the room, and he holds them all accountable. He doesn’t give any sympathy to the fact they’re 18 years old. I’m pleased with his leadership and I’m really pleased with how the young guys are gravitating toward him.

“I think he’s really enjoying that role.”

A.J. Johnson video interview

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