Looking for linebackers

Tennessee has a superstar in linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin. But who will stand next to him when foot meets leather in September?

Jalen Reeves-Maybin is the guy when it comes to linebacker. Fans know it. Coach Butch Jones knows it. Opposing teams by now surely know it.

All Reeves-Maybin did in his sophomore season was lead Tennessee in tackles with 101 — 11 of those being for a loss — while hauling in an interception and solidifying his spot as the ferocious leader of a hard-hitting defense.

It's the rest of the unit’s playing time that is up for grabs like a desperate Hail Mary.

Jones has yet to settle in on a true middle linebacker to complement his rising star, and he’s spent all spring searching for the other player who will stand next to Reeves-Maybin when the Vols are in their 4-2-5 formation that will be a staple of the defense in 2015.

There are plenty of potential candidates to choose from.

Kenny Bynum has taken most of the first team reps at the position this spring and is the most likely to secure the middle linebacker role at the moment. Linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen likes what he’s seen from the 6-1, 250-pound junior so far, but his sample size has been too small to thoroughly pin him down with a starting spot.

Freshman Dillon Bates is still finding his footing on the field after recovering from a torn labrum, and early enrollee Darrin Kirkland tore his pectoral muscle in January and has missed the entirety of spring practice.

Bates played four games at outside linebacker last year before his season was shut down with the injury, and he’s become more cerebral and put on weight during the recovery process. Kirkland is an intriguing prospect for coaches, too, with his photographic memory and natural instinct at the position.

“The guys that deserve to play will play,” Thigpen said. “Right now Kenny’s doing a good job. I think (rising sophomore) Colton Jumper is showing he belongs on this level. Dillon Bates is a good player. We’ve just every day got to keep building.”

Kirkland and Bates’ injuries have set them back further than Tennessee would like, but the X’s and O’s insight they’ve been able to receive has made the spring more than a total loss. Bates has gained weight while keeping his speed and will undeniably compete for a spot in the starting rotation.

“They’ll swim for a year, but the fact that they can talk to you and are willing to talk to you, call you on the phone and draw up plays, that tells you that the game is important to them,” Thigpen said.

Tennessee linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)

“When you see them working out and playing the game, 90 percent of it is just watching it on the board, drawing it up and then going out there and executing it.”

Gavin Bryant took a redshirt year to watch and learn, and he’s another guy who could slide into a starting spot with a little help from the coaching staff. He’s got the mobility and length to be a threat in the middle. But the freshman is also extremely young and is fighting the learning curve like fellow teammate Kirkland.

“That’s a position that you just can’t walk out and master. It takes a million reps for that position,” Thigpen said. “It took (former starting linebacker) A.J. (Johnson) a year to get it, so I don’t expect anybody to walk out there at that position and completely dominate.”

Starter Curt Maggitt plays more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role and makes his money rushing off the edge, highlighted by his 11 sacks that ranked third in the SEC last season. When the Vols are in a 4-3, Maggitt is expected to be one of the starting linebackers on the field. When they switch to a 4-2-5 to combat the spread offense with a nickel corner, Maggitt will likely be rushing off the edge in an open stance. Chris Weatherd, who is also trying to make himself a contender, has filled in admirably for Maggitt this spring.

“He’s actually understanding it. He’s got pretty good leverage at the nine technique when he has to play nine. He’s got good eye discipline and he’s quick,” Thigpen said. “Curt’s the guy when he comes back, of course, but I’ll tell you, Weatherd does a good job when he’s in there playing the same spot.”

Right now there is no real clear-cut favorite for the coaching staff at middle linebacker or otherwise, and there probably won’t be by the time spring practice ends Saturday. But there is a surplus of contestants fighting for playing time at the linebacker position.

Jones and his staff are simply waiting for one of them to burst through the depth chart to show they belong standing next to the one guy who’s already solidified his spot.

“We all know what Jalen Reeves-Maybin can do. He has been a model of consistency, continues to really transform his game, transform his leadership skills. But who is going to fill the other linebacker position?” Jones said.

“Right now we lack consistency there. We are getting better but no one person has emerged as that leader as the No. 2 linebacker, but I see progress every day that the other players are making, which has been great to see. But not one individual has kind of distanced himself to be named the starter at that other spot."

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