Even John Chavis, UT's low-key defensive coordinator/linebacker coach, is impressed with this year's group. Asked point-blank if this is his best-ever linebacking corps, he wouldn't deny it.
''I've always tried to stay away from making comparisons but it could be, from top to bottom,'' he said. ''We had three guys we put out there in '98 (Al Wilson, Raynoch Thompson, Eric Westmoreland) who were special. All three ended up starting as rookies in the NFL. That group was special but this group certainly has a chance.''
Tennessee's roster features two middle linebackers who could start for just about anyone. Senior Keyon Whiteside and junior Robert Peace waged quite a battle last spring until Peace sustained a shoulder injury shortly before the Orange & White Game. Whiteside moved ahead at that point and remains slightly in front entering the 2002 season. Both are bigger, stronger and more physical than predecessor Dominique Stevenson, who was basically a finesse player. Should Whiteside or Peace get hurt, true freshman Marvin Mitchell probably will give up his redshirt status and join the active roster. He's a 6-3, 230-pounder who patterns himself after Baltimore Ravens superstar Ray Lewis.
Senior Eddie Moore returns as the starting strongside 'backer after leading the team in tackles a year ago. He's backed by redshirt freshman Kevin Simon, who was rated the nation's top prep linebacker two years ago. Behind them is true freshman Omar Gaither, who turned a lot of heads with his play in preseason. This position would be even stronger if super-quick Tony Campbell hadn't lost his eligibility due to academic deficiencies. Only a junior, he might be back for 2003.
There's nothing weak about Tennessee's weakside 'backers. Junior Kevin Burnett's blend of size (6-3, 232), speed and toughness is reminiscent of a young Leonard Little. Interestingly enough, he'll be used in the same ways Little was — lining up in different spots, including occasional duty as a rush end. Burnett is backed by redshirt freshman Jason Mitchell, who fans may remember for the 22-yard interception return he made after picking off a Casey Clausen pass in the Orange & White game last April. Behind him is true freshman Parys Haralson, a 6-2, 235-pound headhunter who is probably the most impressive member of this year's signing class.
Whiteside knew the Vols were loaded with linebackers entering preseason drills. Once he got a look at freshmen Gaither, Mitchell and Haralson, he was nearly dumbfounded.
''Man, it shocked me,'' he said, shaking his head in amazement. ''When the young guys get older, it's going to be dangerous with them boys running around out there.''
Linebacker U may be making a comeback.