The 1998 defense that fueled a national championship run had Al Wilson, Raynoch Thompson and Eric Westmoreland. The '99 defense that allowed just three rushing touchdowns all season featured Thompson, Westmoreland and Dominique Stevenson. The 2005 defense that allowed a paltry 17 total touchdowns was led by Omar Gaither, Kevin Simon and Jason Mitchell.
Given the correlation between quality linebackers and a quality defense, there are justifiable concerns about the "second level" of Tennessee's defense heading into 2009. Minus senior starters Ellix Wilson and Nevin McKenzie from 2008, the '09 linebacker corps is a bit suspect.
Senior Rico McCoy returns at weakside linebacker, where he has started 27 games, including all 12 in 2008. The 6-1, 220-pounder isn't the most consistent guy around but he's talented and experienced.
So much for the good news ...
After McCoy, the second-most experienced linebacker is junior Nick Reveiz, who has one career start and 33 career tackles to his credit. Being a 5-10, 220-pounder who arrived at UT as a walk-on, he could not be more unheralded. Reveiz made plays all spring, however, and will be bracketed first-team at middle linebacker when preseason drills begin in August.
Bracketed with Reveiz is Herman Lathers, a 6-2, 213-pound redshirt freshman. His lack of heft could be a concern against opponents who elect to run right at him. Mid-term freshman Nigel Mitchell-Thornton (6-0, 229) has decent size for a middle 'backer but is green as grass.
The likely starter at strongside linebacker is JaMarcus Thompson, a 6-1, 221-pound junior with no meaningful experience. He registered 10 tackles last fall but all 10 came on special teams.
Bracketed No. 1 with Thompson coming out of spring practice is walk-on Shane Reveiz, a 5-11, 210-pound sophomore and brother of Nick Reveiz. Also in the strongside mix are sophomores Chris Donald (6-1, 224) and Daryl Vereen (6-0, 213). Vereen has three career tackles to his credit – all on special teams. Reveiz and Donald have zero.
Backing McCoy on the weakside is junior Savion Frazier, a 6-2, 221-pounder with the tools to be very good. He registered 18 tackles last fall but six of those came on special teams. Sophomore Josh Hawkins, a 6-1, 223-pound converted tailback, flashed some potential in spring practice but is still learning the position. His only contribution to date was a special-teams' assist last fall.
Three February signees will join the linebacker competition in August. Jerod Askew, a 6-1, 230-pounder out of Chesapeake, Va., was Scout.com's No. 6 ranked middle linebacker prospect last winter and could pose a threat to Reveiz and Lathers this fall.
Greg King, a 6-3, 200-pounder from Memphis, and Robert Nelson, a 6-0, 205-pounder from Stone Mountain, Ga., should bolster depth at the outside 'backer positions.
Tennessee will miss 2008 middle linebacker Ellix Wilson, who recorded a team-high 89 tackles last fall. Conversely, McKenzie and senior backup Adam Myers-White were merely adequate a year ago, so their departures are no big deal.
Using my usual scale of Plus-2 (significantly stronger), Plus-1 (somewhat stronger), Zero (about the same), Minus-1 (somewhat weaker) and Minus-2 (significantly weaker), I'd have to give the Vols a Minus-1 at linebacker. Whereas the 2008 group was average in talent but blessed with experience, the '09 group is average in talent and inexperienced to boot.