Tracking Top Linebacking Talent

Tennessee's highly favorable football forecast for this fall is largely due to its veteran defense, and replenishing that star-studded unit, which projects seven senior starters, is job one for the 2006 recruiting campaign.

The top priority is at linebacker where the Vols are expected to start a trio of seniors in Kevin Simon, Jason Mitchell and Omar Gaither, plus have two juniors — Daniel Brook and Marvin Mitchell — as well as senior Jon Poe in the rotation. Redshirt freshman Jerod Mayo will contend for playing time on the outside as will sophomore surprise Ryan Karl, who lettered as a true freshman after coming to UT as a relatively unheralded high school safety/running back.

Sophomores James Turner and Ellix Wilson got their feet wet as true freshmen and will compete for reps. Incoming freshman Rico McCoy has the look of a big-time, play-making talent on the edge, while classmate Andre Mathis is a physical force in the middle with exciting potential.

So, there is definitely talent in reserve but adding quality depth is essential as is signing an impact talent that could immediately factor into the rotation.

Here are five linebacker prospects the Vols have offered along with a safety prospect who has the look of a Big Orange linebacker in UT's speed-oriented defensive scheme.

• MARCUS SIMS (6-2, 220, 4.6) of Tallahassee North Florida Christian, is the brother of Ernie Sims, who was the No. 1 rated prospect in the nation when he signed with Florida State in 2003. He could also play running back in college but his professional future would be better served at linebacker. He reads plays, shed blocks and hits ball carriers with authority. Active and instinctive, Sims is fundamentally sound and technically refined. There's' no shortage of contenders including Auburn, FSU, Georgia, LSU, Miami, Tennessee and USC.

• JOSHUA TATUM (6-2, 220, 4.5) of McClymonds Senior High School in Oakland, Calif., has the type of speed and athleticism to thrive in UT's attacking defense. Enjoyed a sensational sophomore campaign that included 125 tackles, 10 sacks, seven forced fumbles and four interceptions, but was sidelined by a shoulder injury as a junior. Tatum has a 3.6 GPA and scored a 1350 on the new version SAT. He lifts 335 in the bench press and has a 37-inch vertical leap. He's close to UT captain Kevin Simon and lists the Vols as one of his top five with Miami, USC, Cal and Ole Miss. Oklahoma, Nebraska and Michigan have also offered this standout.

• JEREMIHA HUNTER (6-2, 210, 4.5) of Manheim Central in Manheim, Pa., qualifies as the "Manheim Steamroller" after collecting 268 combined tackles as a sophomore and junior. Despite that daunting defensive load, he still carried for over 2,600 yards and 45 touchdowns, pulling double duty on offense. He intercepted five passes in 2004, returning two for touchdowns. Compares favorably to UT signee McCoy with his ability to drop into coverage or blitz the quarterback. Changes directions well, flows to the football and strikes like a cobra. He led his team to the state title game last season. Pursued by the usual class of contenders including: Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Penn State and Florida. Tennessee has closed ground in recent weeks.

• KELVIN SHEPPARD (6-2, 222, 4.6) of Stephenson High School in Stone Mountain, Ga., has seen his stock take off this summer and has recently picked up offers from LSU, Nebraska, Louisville and Tennessee, where he is expected to attend a seven-on-seven passing camp this weekend. Sheppard is a combo linebacker who covers a lot of ground and takes good angles to the football. He recorded 106 tackles (16 for losses) as a junior, with four sacks and a couple of interceptions, playing with more celebrated teammates Jermaine Cunningham and Marcus Ball at linebackers. Boasts a 280-pound power clean and 300-pound bench press.

• JARRELL MILLER (6-3, 235, 4.65) of Highland Springs High School in Highland Springs, Va., has prototypical size and toughness to play the middle. He should add strength (275-pound bench) once he fully focuses on football, whereas, he has competed in basketball and track the last three years. Is also an outstanding fullback prospect with offers from LSU, Maryland, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Virginia and Virginia Tech in addition to Tennessee.

• DARRYL GAMBLE (6-1, 200, 4.60) of Bainbridge High School in Bainbridge, Ga., is listed as a safety by but looks like outside linebacker by UT's standards. Played safety at Bainbridge and recorded 89 tackles, two sacks, five interceptions and three forced fumbles as a junior. His current favorites are Clemson, Georgia, Maryland, Tennessee and Auburn, where he had a very impressive camp showing.

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