The 2009 linebacker corps is Tennessee's most inexperienced in a long, long time. Senior weakside 'backer Rico McCoy has 27 career starts; the rest of the 'backer corps has one. That one belongs to junior middle linebacker Nick Reveiz, a 5-10, 220-pound former walk-on who recorded 10 of his 18 tackles last fall on special teams.
Junior LaMarcus Thompson, who recorded all 10 of his 2008 tackles on special teams, appears likely to start at strongside linebacker.
The best of the backups is junior Savion Frazier, who recorded 6 of his 18 tackles last fall on special teams. The rest of the scholarship cast consists of sophomores Daryl Vereen and Josh Hawkins, redshirt freshman Herman Lathers and true freshmen Jerod Askew, Greg King, Nigel Mitchell-Thornton and Robert Nelson. No one in that group has recorded a scrimmage tackle or assist in a college game.
Given all of the above, many Tennessee fans are expecting the worst. Despite all of the above, Lance Thompson is not.
"I've been really pleased with Fraze (Frazier)," the Vol aide said. "He's come a long way. As a group, they've come a long way. Nick, I'm really pleased with. Herman, I'm really pleased with."
Thompson also likes what he has seen from the true freshmen, although he cautions that they still have a lot of learning and maturing ahead of them.
"Greg King, Nigel - all of those guys that just got here - you've got to be patient with them," the Vol aide said. "But in terms of playing with good effort, trying to be tough and be physical in this league - which you've got to be - they've done that for the most part. Now, scheme-wise, they're coming along, making less errors."
Errors in alignment and assignment drive coaches crazy. No one is more concerned about them than Lance Thompson.
"In football, games are lost more than they're won," he said. "You beat yourself not being aligned right and missing opportunities that you should make plays and you didn't make plays. That comes with experience."
And, as noted previously, McCoy is the only Vol linebacker who has a significant amount of experience. Basically, Tennessee fans can only hope the 'backers offset in effort what they're lacking in experience.
"I'm happy with their attitude and the way they're working," Thompson said. "Football is a developmental game, and they can always get better. I'm the type of guy that is never satisfied, and I want them to feel that way. I want them to be hungry, saying 'I can be more physical. I can be more in tune with what the offense is doing pre-snap. I can be a better player.'
"Are they making progress? Yeah, they've come a long way. But they've still got a long way to go."
If there is a silver lining for Tennessee it is this: The freshman linebackers appear to be taking some big steps on the practice field this preseason. Thompson isn't putting too much stock in that, however.
"I don't think freshmen make steps until they actually get into the fire," he said. "I think we all learn from our failures in this business - getting knocked on your ass and getting up and learning from it.
"They're going to have to get in there with real bullets. I tell 'em 'This is combat. There ain't going to be no friends out there. Those boys lined up across the line of scrimmage are going to try and wear you out.'
"They've got to have the courage to (deal with) that and they've got to have the mindset that they can be successful."