They may be incapable of transforming into animals but two of Tennessee’s middle linebacker candidates still qualify as modern-day shape-shifters.
First-teamer Kenny Bynum has dropped 15 pounds since the 2014 season ended. Second-teamer Dillon Bates has added 10 pounds during the same span. Both see benefits.
“I was around 245 at the bowl game in Jacksonville,” Bynum recalled. “Now I’m about 230, so I definitely feel a lot quicker and a lot more agile, able to keep up with backs.”
He also notes more endurance since the weight loss, which he says was not done to appease the coaching staff.
“It was more of a ‘me’ thing,” Bynum said. “I don’t like feeling huge. I like to feel I’m fit.”
Naturally, he feels a lot fitter at 230 than he did at 245.
“I actually put on strength when I lost body fat,” he said. “I feel great running around.”
So does Bates, who arrived on campus as a 225-pound freshman last fall. He put on some bad weight following a season-ending knee surgery but replaced it with good weight the past few months.
“I got a lot stronger and lost a lot of that fat you get after surgery and start eating a lot,” he said. “I’ve put on about 10 pounds of muscle, and I’m up to 235 now, so I’m feeling really good.”
Despite the weight gain Bates notes a positive impact on his agility.
“It’s just easier to move around,” he said. “When you’re at MIKE linebacker you’ve got to play from sideline to sideline, and not having the right weight slows you down. Being more lean you can go sideline to sideline and take on blockers.”
Bates needs to “move around” well to compete in a bulging middle linebacker field. Counting Jakob Johnson, who started two games last November but is currently getting a look at tight end, six Vols are vying for supremacy at MLB.
“It’s been pretty competitive,” Bates said. “There are a lot of guys competing for that spot every day, so you can’t miss any reps. It’s all about your effort on the field.”
Asked where he fits into the middle linebacker pecking order, Bates shrugged.
“I’m still not 100-percent sure,” he said. “We’re still early in the camp and we’re all competing for jobs and rotating. It’s still up in the air.”
Bynum knows he’s competing in a battle royal to remain No. 1 on the depth chart.
“There’s definitely great competition at the MIKE linebacker,” he said. “I’m doing everything I can to try and hold down this first-team spot.”
As fate would have it, Bynum spends part of each practice helping the very guys who are trying to take his job.
“It’s just a part of the game — teaching them the ins and outs,” he said. “I’m not going to hold back from teaching them just because I might lose a spot. It’s for the benefit of the team, pretty much.”
Bynum played sparingly during the 2014 regular season but started the TaxSlayer Bowl versus Iowa. He registered just two tackles but feels he gained a lot from the opportunity, noting: “I think me having that experience definitely puts me up there in knowing what to do and lining everybody up.”
Whereas the stereotypical middle linebacker of the 20th century was more of a head-hunter, today’s MIKE is more akin to a traffic cop – constantly giving directions to keep everyone in the correct lane.
“You’ve got to be able to line everybody up and execute your assignment at the same time.” Bynum said. “If you can do those two things you can pretty much hold down the middle linebacker spot.”
The job sounds a lot more complex the way Bates explains it.
“At MIKE,” he said, “you have to make all the calls, know your assignment, know everybody else’s assignment, play the down and go make a play, too.”
Given all of this, it is little wonder that the middle linebacker is called the quarterback of the defense.
“The MIKE is definitely the CEO of the defense,” Bates said. “You have to take pride in that and take possession of the defense — whether that’s being a leader on the field, taking calls and being loud on the field, taking control of the defense. It’s definitely one of the biggest positions on the defense, so you have to have the knowledge of where everybody’s lining up to run the defense.”
Despite limited time in the middle, Bates believes he is adjusting quickly to his new outpost.
“I’m feeling really comfortable,” he said. “We’ve put in a lot of different things but it’s definitely clicking a lot more since I was able to sit in meetings last fall and go through the spring (as an observer). Now I can not only see what my assignment is, but see what other people’s assignment is, where the weakness of the defense is, how to correct it and what kind of schemes the offense is going to run against that kind of defense.”
Bynum also feels more comfortable these days — physically, as well as mentally. Asked what caused him to gain weight last fall, when most players shed pounds in-season, he smiled sheepishly.
“I kind of ate a lot. That was pretty much it,” he said, following up with: “I take smaller portions now.”
Those smaller portions may mean a much bigger role in 2015. Bynum’s slimmed-down physique has made a positive impression on his head coach this preseason.
“You can tell a difference,” Butch Jones said. “He is athletic. I like his attitude. I like his leadership. He is very vocal and playing with confidence. He looks quicker out there and has worked exceptionally hard. We have been very pleased with him."
Asked where he has seen the most improvement in Bynum, Jones replied without hesitation.
"Sideline to sideline and being able to cover more ground, the coach said. “We have some running backs that can run a little bit, and he has been able to run a few of them down.”