Vols reload at linebacker

One of Tennessee's key objectives during the just-ended recruiting season was to replenish a soon-to-be depleted linebacking corps. Mission accomplished.

With starters Jerod Mayo and Ryan Karl gone from the 2007 corps and four senior 'backers scheduled to depart following the 2008 season, the Vols were in desperate need of some reinforcements. Head coach Phillip Fulmer believes that concern has been alleviated with the signing of five solid prospects.

The newcomers are mid-term enrollee Austin Johnson (6-3, 235) of Hickory, N.C., Marlon Walls (6-4, 230) of Olive Branch, Miss., Willie Bohannon (6-3, 230) of Mobile, Gerald Williams (6-4, 240) from City College of San Francisco and Herman Lathers (6-0, 210) of Baton Rouge.

Johnson recorded a mind-boggling 580 career tackles in high school, including 211 as a junior and 210 as a senior.

Walls recorded 127 tackles, a school-record 11 sacks and five forced fumbles in 2007.

Bohannon registered 73 tackles, including nine sacks, as a senior. He posted 15 sacks among 57 stops as a junior and 18 sacks among 70 tackles as a sophomore.

Williams recorded 146 tackles and six forced fumbles in junior college last year. He notched 96 stops the year before in prep school at Hargrave Military Academy.

Lathers registered 114 tackles last fall, with 18 tackles for loss, five sacks and two interceptions. He had 96 tackles and 14 sacks as a junior.

All of the linebacker signees except Lathers have the frame to grow into defensive ends, another recruiting priority this year. Because he'll have a chance to participate in spring practice, Johnson may have the best chance to make an impact in 2008.

"Austin Johnson is a tough guy – a very, very smart young man with great character and outstanding ability," Fulmer said this week. "We're glad he's here and we're glad he'll be in spring practice.

"Marlon Walls is one of those guys that could play either position (linebacker or end)," the coach added. "He reminds me a lot of another really special player that was here, Leonard Little. He's a great person who has an unbelievable motor as he goes about playing football. And that speed is what we're looking for on defense.

"Willie Bohannon is another guy who could be a defensive end or a linebacker. He has speed, quickness. We saw him in an all-star practice, and he was absolutely one of the best players on the field, so we went and got him. He was recruited really hard by a lot of people late but he stuck with us. We really look forward to coaching Willie."

Fulmer has been looking forward to coaching Gerald Williams for four years now. Originally signed in 2005, he had problems with the NCAA Clearinghouse that forced him to sign with UT again in 2006, again in 2007 and again in 2008.

"I was really happy to get his fax again," Fulmer said, adding that the Williams saga is "the most unbelievable story I've been around – how he has stayed the course and never wavered."

So, will the fourth time be the charm for Gerald Williams?

"Without question," Fulmer said, "we'll have him here this fall ... this summer, we hope."

Although Williams' size makes him a prime candidate for a move to defensive end, Fulmer says the Lauderdale Lakes (Fla.) native will begin his career at linebacker "because that's what he wants to play."

At 6-0 and 210 pounds, Lathers fits the physical mold of recent Vol outside linebackers Eric Westmoreland, Eddie Moore, Rico McCoy and the afore-mentioned Ryan Karl.

"Herman Lathers is fast," Fulmer said. "He's a guy that we offered in (last June's UT senior) camp. He was recruited by a lot of people but never wavered. We're really excited by the speed and athletic ability that he brings."

With two starters departing from UT's 2007 linebacking corps, all five of the rookies will get an opportunity to earn playing time in '08.

"Linebacker – particularly Mike (middle) linebacker – is pretty much wide open," Fulmer said. "Ellix Wilson's got the experience and should be the guy to start there but whoever the best three are will be our linebackers."

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