McCoy, a 6-1 220-pound senior from Washington, D.C., earned some All-SEC recognition last fall after registering 87 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack, 2 quarterback hurries, 3 pass breakups and 3 pass deflections. As UT's only returning starter at linebacker, he is the bell cow of the front seven for 2009.
Tennessee's coaches moved him to strongside linebacker this spring in hopes his explosive quickness could be better exploited as a blitzer. With McCoy on the strong side, 6-1 221-pound junior LaMarcus Thompson inherited the weakside spot. Junior Nick Reveiz and redshirt freshman Herman Lathers have been splitting practice repetitions at middle linebacker.
As spring practice entered the final week, however, Tennessee's staff decided to flip-flop the outside 'backers – McCoy returning to the weak side and Thompson getting a look on the strong side.
"Rico's probably playing the best of all the linebackers," head coach Lane Kiffin said following Tuesday's practice. "We've moved him from Sam (strong side) to Will (weak side). That's usually in this system where the best playmaker goes."
Vol defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, who filled the same role for the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers previously, is hoping McCoy can make the type of contributions for the Vols that Derrick Brooks made as the weakside 'backer for the Bucs.
"That's where Derrick Brooks plays over at Tampa," Lane Kiffin noted. "That's where you put your best player in this system because he'll be covered up by a 3-technique player in front of him."
McCoy didn't perform poorly during his stint at strongside linebacker; he just didn't make the impact coaches had hoped he would. That's why he's back at his old spot.
"He's done a really good job," Lane Kiffin said. "And Nick's really doing a good job in the middle. Guys are pushing guys a lot but there's a lot of open competition there."
There is so much competition at linebacker, in fact, that the coaching staff is still trying to figure out who'll join McCoy in the first-team trio. Reveiz and Lathers are waging quite a battle in the middle. Savion Frazier, Chris Donald, Daryl Vereen, Josh Hawkins and mid-term freshman Nigel Mitchell-Thornton also are competing for spots in the playing rotation.
"We maybe wouldn't go as live (full-speed in practice) if we had more figured out on our defense," Kiffin noted. "When it comes to it, that's what really matters: When you go live, do they make the play when they're right there?"