Prime examples in recent years of players that beefed up and briefed up to play linebacker are Eric Westmoreland, Eddie Moore and Dominique Stevenson, who were all established running backs in high school. Anthony Sessions, Kevin Burnett and Al Wilson made their reputation as hard-hitting safeties before becoming outstanding linebackers at UT.
This writer distinctly recalls a conversation with Burnett shortly after he signed with Tennessee in which it was suggested he could be moved to linebacker at UT. He rejected the observation faster than he streaks to the QB on a delayed blitz, however before he was injured in the first series last season as a junior, he was not only playing linebacker, but was being touted as the best weak-side candidate the Vols had produced in the last decade.
Essentially, Tennessee looks to take away the outside run with the mere presence of speed and alignment on defense. And most teams are reluctant to test UT's stop troops outside the tackles. This allows the Vols to anticipate where the ball is going on the ground and to have linear run lanes directly to the point of attack. This puts a lot of defenders in the area of the ball quickly and makes it extremely difficult for offenses to establish any consistent production on the ground. Some teams have limited success with misdirection, and cutback runners can pose occasional problems but, by and large, its hard to make a living against Tennessee on the ground. That's why the Vols are consistently among the SEC and national leaders in rush defense.
Given those parameters from which to project, it is pretty easy to predict positions for prospects on Tennessee's defense. However sometimes a player comes along with enough ability and diversity to defy categorization.
Julian Battle is a good example of a player who could play several positions including strong safety, free safety, cornerback and linebacker. Last season he was used in a number of roles and was invaluable to a Tennessee defense that remained highly competitive despite suffering outrageous attrition. With a complete cast at full strength Battle could have been even more of a standout, as his size and speed would been used aggressively — instead of out of necessity to cover holes — adding a surprise element to UT's defense.
UT signee Corey Campbell is another prospect who possesses that same type of physical frame, diverse talent and mental toughness to eventually become a standout in various roles for the Vols. In fact, at 6-3, 200, with 4.39 speed, Campbell is almost a clone of Battle who is 6-3, 205, 4.42.
"He played a safety and cornerback here," said Houston Westfield head coach Ronnie Lynch. "My understanding is when he gets to Tennessee they're going to give him a look at both of those positions."
There are a couple of considerations that may allow Campbell to remain in the secondary at UT as opposed to moving to linebacker. To begin with, Tennessee is loaded at outside linebacker with such topflight candidates as Burnett, Kevin Simon, Jason Mitchell, Ovince St. Preux and fellow signee Daniel Brooks. That would leave Robert Peace, Marvin Mitchell and Jon Poe to fill the middle linebacker position.
Additionally, big cornerbacks who can take on taller receivers one-on-one are in vogue and Campbell, who is rated the nation's No. 8 safety prospect is the best qualified player on UT's current roster to play that role.
"He's a strong kid for a slender-build player,' said Lynch. "He started for us three years here and was our captain last season. He runs track but he also spends a lot of time in the weight room."
Recently in an invitational track meet, Campbell ran a 10.4 electronically timed 100 meters. He intercepted four passes as a sophomore, 12 as a junior and two last season as teams learned to avoid him. He also recorded 55 solo stops and 70 total tackles. He had 95 tackles as a junior for a team that went 12-2 and finished runner-up in Texas' rugged Division II after an overtime loss to champion Lufkin.
"We had 11 kids sign Division I and Division II scholarships," said Lynch. "We had kids sign with Iowa State, Nebraska, Tennessee and Miami. Corey is a good leader and the kids really respect him. He's not a rah-rah type or a trash-talking guy. He leads by example and he's a big-time run filler."
Campbell also returned kickoffs for Westfield and contributed six pass breakups, caused three fumbles, recorded six tackles for losses, recovered two fumbles and had two sacks last season.
Lynch believes Campbell will remain a defensive force at the collegiate level and credits Tennessee assistant Larry Slade for his decision to become a Vol.
"He really loves Coach Slade," said Lynch. "He could have gone to a lot of places and I believe he signed with Tennessee because he got along so well with Coach Slade."
If Campbell contributes as early and as effectively as expected at Tennessee, his relationship with Coach Slade can only get better — to say nothing of the Vols secondary.