McCoy likes linebacker look

Tennessee football fans can't help but wonder how good the Vol defense would be in 2008 if middle linebacker Jerod Mayo had elected to return for his senior season. Several Tennessee players wonder, too.

"We talked about what if ... what if he (Mayo) was still here and what we could've done," said Rico McCoy, the Vols' No. 1 weakside linebacker. "But we've got a whole bunch of guys who are more than capable of doing a great job playing linebacker.

"I'm still excited, and looking forward to playing with these guys."

Although Mayo led the entire Southeastern Conference with 140 tackles last fall, McCoy has complete confidence that Mayo's successor will do just fine.

"You've got to keep an eye on Ellix Wilson," McCoy said. "That's no secret. He can play. When he was on the field he was making plays. He was like No. 2 on the team in sacks, and he didn't even play much."

Indeed. Wilson tied for second place in sacks last fall by recording three for 19 yards in losses. He accomplished this, despite starting just one game (the Outback Bowl) while Mayo was injured.

In addition to Mayo, the Vol linebacker corps also is looking to replace Ryan Karl, the No. 1 strongside linebacker in both 2006 and 2007. Two seniors are battling to replace Karl, and McCoy is high on both of them.

"Adam Myers-White and Nevin McKenzie ... I'd say it's a toss-up," he said. "They're both going to be big playmakers. They're big, fast guys and they can fly around. I'm looking forward to playing with 'em."

McKenzie, signed out of junior college as a safety prospect, switched to linebacker last fall because he proved to be a lot better at flattening people than covering people. Some observers think McKenzie hits even harder than McCoy. What does McCoy think of such talk?

"Come on ... you're asking me who hits harder?" he said, laughing. "I'm going to take that (distinction).... I think I'm a hard hitter. He's a hard hitter, too, but I give myself the crown."

Although Mayo is gone, his impact on Tennessee's returning linebackers remains. They learned a lot from him, one thing in particular.

"His work ethic," McCoy said. "He was consistent throughout the season. At the end, when everybody else was wearing out, he was still picking up. I think that had to do with his offseason workouts and his work ethic. He just had a great work ethic, and that's what we're trying to follow. We're trying to work out like him because he got it done."

Losing a talent such as Mayo is sure to hurt. Still, Tennessee has lost quality linebackers in the past – Al Wilson, Raynoch Thompson, Eric Westmoreland, Eddie Moore, Kevin Simon and Kevin Burnett to name just a few – and the Vols always seem to find capable replacements. McCoy thinks that's a credit to linebacker coach/defensive coordinator John Chavis.

"Chief does a very good job of coaching you up from Day 1," McCoy said. "After a year in the system, most guys are ready to play. It's just about getting an opportunity to play.

"When somebody steps out, somebody else has to step up."

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