Watch these backup 'backers

With the season opener rapidly approaching, here are two predictions regarding the Vols' linebacking corps:

1. Kevin Simon will have a monster year.

2. Second-teamers Jerod Mayo, Marvin Mitchell and Ryan Karl will play almost as well as the first-teamers.

Fans already know that Simon has overcome tremendous adversity in his four years at UT – two major ACL surgeries, a broken ankle and the tragic shooting death of his older brother. Somehow, each setback seems to have made him even tougher and more determined than he was before. Now that he's down to his final year of collegiate eligibility, look for him to cut loose.

"He's still getting back to where he was (before the most recent knee surgery)," defensive coordinator John Chavis said. "Most guys it's a little over a year before they're fully recovered. But I've been pleased with the progress he's made. He, along with Omar Gaither and Jason Mitchell, give us three good starting linebackers."

Simon and Gaither are on the preseason watch list for the Butkus Award, given annually to the NCAA's premier linebacker. And Mitchell is no slouch, with 18 career starts to his credit. These three seniors are only a half-step ahead of their backups, however. Tennessee's second-team linebackers could start for just about anyone else in the Southeastern Conference. This is a very, very talented group.

Mayo, a 6-2, 222-pound redshirt freshman, made plays all over the field in the preseason scrimmages. He looks to be UT's next great linebacker.

Marvin Mitchell, a 6-3, 253-pound junior, was one of Tennessee's brightest prospects until a knee injury caused him to miss the entire 2004 season. Now he's back and eager to pick up where he left off.

Karl, a 6-0, 210-pound sophomore, is a guy with great speed and a non-stop motor. Considered a sleeper coming out of high school, he's been one of the most pleasant surprises on the Vol roster this preseason.

Although Chavis likes his trio of senior starters, he readily concedes that "We've got three guys that are pushing those guys. That second group is a good group of linebackers, and I like what they're getting done."

Chavis likes what they're getting done so much, in fact, that he plans to occasionally rotate the second-team ‘backers into the lineup as a group.

"Yeah. We've done that before," he said. "I feel very comfortable with this second group being in the ballgame at any point in time. With three seniors you'd think there would be a big drop-off but there's not a big drop-off from the seniors to those three young guys. I'm excited about them."

By the end of Saturday's season opener, Vol fans will be excited about them, too. Consider that a bonus prediction.

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