Interestingly enough, three of the best – Al Wilson (Jackson), Tyrone Hines (Brownsville) and Reggie Ingram (Memphis) – are native Tennesseans.
What follows are my rankings of the top middle linebackers of the Phillip Fulmer era (1992-present):
1. Al Wilson (1997-98): Actually, Al started at outside linebacker in '97 before moving inside as a senior captain. He earned All-SEC recognition both years he started and garnered All-America honors in '98. Hampered by injuries, his stats do not begin to reflect his value. Simply put, he was the heart and soul of the '98 national championship team, a squad he literally WILLED to a 13-0 season. A first-round draft pick in '99, the 6-1, 235-pounder played eight distinguished seasons in the NFL before an injury ended his career.
2. Kevin Simon (2003, 2005): Had he been blessed with two good knees, he might've been even better than Wilson. Simon led the '03 Vols with 115 tackles, missed all but one game of '04 with a knee injury, then bounced back to lead the '05 Vols with 88 stops. The 5-11, 225-pounder's best games as a senior came against SEC East rivals Georgia (15 stops) and Florida (12).
3. Tyrone Hines (1994-96): He's in the record book for the second-longest blocked field goal return in UT history, going 90 yards against South Carolina in '95. Active and aggressive, the 6-2, 240-pounder led the '96 Vols in tackles (110) and big plays (24).
4. Marvin Mitchell (2006): Hampered by injuries for three years, Mitchell finally stayed healthy long enough to enjoy an ultra-productive senior season. Voted a team captain in '06, he topped all Vols with 104 tackles that year. The 6-3, 245-pounder was downright heroic against Florida, recording 13 tackles and two assists against a Gator team that was on its way to the national title. Taken in Round 7 of the draft, Mitchell had a solid rookie year for the New Orleans Saints last fall.
5. Robert Peace (2002-03): There was nothing flashy about his game but this rugged 6-2, 250-pounder did an exceptional job in his two years as a starter. He recorded 103 stops as a senior, including a 16-tackle effort at Alabama and a 15-tackle outing against South Carolina.
5. Reggie Ingram (1992-93): He wasn't much for big plays – recording just 5.5 as a junior and 7 as a senior – but this 6-2, 235-pound Memphian was a solid run-stuffer in his two years as the starting middle linebacker. He led UT with 85 tackles in '92 and contributed 77 as a senior, including a 14-stop effort against Arkansas.
6. Dominique Stevenson (1999-2001): A converted running back, he somehow started at middle linebacker for three years without leading the team in tackles any of those years. The 6-0, 230-pounder recorded 74 tackles as a senior, including 10 each against Georgia and Notre Dame. A seventh-round draft pick in 2002, he stuck around the NFL for three years.
NOTE: Three players who started at MLB during the Fulmer era are not mentioned here – Leonard Little (1997), Jason Mitchell (2004) and Jerod Mayo. Little already was ranked as a defensive end, the position he played for most of his UT career. Mitchell and Mayo will be rated at outside linebacker, which was their more natural position.