Gaither spent much of his Vol career toiling in the shadow of All-American Kevin Burnett. Galyon, Westmoreland and Moore were relatively unheralded in-state signees who turned out to be better 'backers than some more ballyhooed out-of-state recruits. All four of the above wound up surpassing expectations at the college level, then doing so again at the professional level.
Ultimately, success stories such as Gaither, Galyon, Westmoreland and Moore have enabled the Vols to maintain a consistently high level of play at the outside linebacker positions during the past 1½ decades.
That said, here's my ranking of the starting OLBs of the Phillip Fulmer era (1992-present):
1. Jerod Mayo (2006-07): Although he played middle linebacker as a junior, he spent most of his career on the outside, where he was superb when healthy. The 6-2, 235-pounder posted 236 career tackles, even though he battled injuries and elected to skip his senior season in favor of the NFL Draft. He posted an SEC-best 140 stops in '07, earning all-conference recognition in the process. Mayo was the 10th player selected in the 2008 NFL Draft.
2. Raynoch Thompson (1997-99): Though often overshadowed by fellow 'backer Al Wilson, Thompson proved to be outstanding in his own right. A three-year starter, he was All-SEC in '98, then All-SEC and All-America in '99. The 6-3, 220-pounder intercepted three passes as a senior and finished his career with 243 tackles. A second-round pick in the 2000 NFL Draft, he spent six years in the league.
3. Kevin Burnett (2003-04): A converted safety, he recorded a whopping 274 career tackles, including 120 as a senior. He registered 120 of these stops as a senior in 2004, earning All-SEC and All-America recognition for his efforts. A Round 2 NFL Draft pick in 2005, the 6-2, 230-pounder is still playing in the pros.
4. Omar Gaither (2004-05): Exceptionally quick and athletic, he recorded 92 tackles in '04 and 78 in '05 en route to 210 for his career. Although he lasted until Round 5 of the '06 NFL Draft, he has quickly emerged as one of the league's better young 'backers.
5. Scott Galyon (1993-94): Another converted safety, he recorded 93 tackles in '94 and 91 in '95 en route to 252 career stops. A native of Seymour who grew up just 20 miles from the UT campus, he went on to play seven seasons in the NFL after being selected in Round 6 of the '95 draft.
6. Keyon Whiteside (2001-02): Probably the biggest UT outside linebacker of recent years, this 6-2, 245-pounder was a part-time starter in '01 who exploded as a senior in '02. Posting one of the best seasons ever by a Vol linebacker, he finished 2002 with 119 tackles, five sacks and two interceptions. A fifth-round NFL Draft pick, he lasted three years in the league.
7. Eric Westmoreland (1998-2000): Signed as a lightly regarded high school running back out of Jasper, Westmoreland spent a year at safety before finding a home at linebacker. A sure tackler, he shocked a lot of people by starting for three years at Tennessee, recording 253 career stops and earning All-SEC honors as a senior. A third-round NFL Draft pick, he stuck around the pros for six years.
8. Eddie Moore (2001-02): Like Westmoreland, Moore was an in-state kid (South Pittsburg) who greatly exceeded expectations at the college level. He recorded 81 tackles in '01 and 101 in '02, finishing with 219 stops for his career. A second-round draft pick, he drew an NFL paycheck for four years.
9. Jason Mitchell (2004-05): Writing a script that UT basketball's Chris Lofton would borrow two years later, Mitchell courageously played his senior season with an unpublicized health problem (a slight ligament tear in his knee). Battling considerable pain, he started eight times and registered just 32 tackles. The 6-1, 225-pounder also put the team before himself in '04, playing the last 10 games of at middle linebacker after a knee injury sidelined Kevin Simon. Playing out of position, Mitchell recorded 57 tackles, including a 10-stop effort against a 13-0 Auburn team that featured superstar tailbacks Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown.
10. Ryan Karl (2006-07): Like Westmoreland and Moore, Karl grew up inside the state's boundaries (Franklin) and played at a much higher level in college than the recruiting services projected he would. Exceptional in pass coverage, the 6-0, 215-pounder recorded seven pass breakups as a senior last fall. A two-year starter, he called the defensive signals and still found time to register 66 tackles in 2006 and 85 in '07.
Other starting outside 'backers from the Fulmer era are:
- Anthony Sessions (2000): This junior college transfer rallied following a bland '99 season to win a starting job and play exceptionally well in '00. He recorded 83 stops that season and finished with 111 for his two-year career.
- Craig King (1996): Oddly enough, he recorded almost as many stops (36) as a backup in '95 as he did as a starter (37) in '96.
- Jesse Sanders (1994): A converted running back, he registered 52 stops in his lone season as a starting 'backer.