UT's depth at linebacker

The same injuries that crippled Tennessee's linebacker corps in 2009 may upgrade Tennessee's linebacker corps for 2010.

Nick Reveiz started at middle linebacker until he suffered a torn ACL that forced Nigel Mitchell-Thornton to play most of Game 4 vs. Auburn. Savion Frazier started at MLB in Games 5, 6, 7 and 8, then suffered a torn ACL that forced Herman Lathers to start the final five games. LaMarcus Thompson started 11 games at strongside linebacker but missed Games 4 and 11 with injuries that thrust freshman Greg King into the lineup.

The rash of significant injuries forced linebackers coach Lance Thompson to play a lot of reserves a lot of snaps last fall. It also forced him to play some middle linebackers at strongside and vice-versa.

"Most people would think that's a bad thing because they have to learn so many different things," Mitchell-Thornton recalled this week, "but for us it's better because last year we had guys going down and more people had to learn more positions.

"Now Coach Thompson has been able to prepare people for two or three positions. Most of the guys on the team know two positions, and he's had me learn all three. That way if somebody goes down we'll have guys ready to go in. We won't be in a crunch like we were last year."

Although learning all three linebacker spots is somewhat taxing mentally, Mitchell-Thornton already sees major benefits.

"If a guy gets hurt, I can step in for him," the 6-0, 225-pound sophomore said. "Or if a guy isn't sure what he's doing on a play, I can help him out by telling him what his assignment is."

Reveiz returned to full-speed practice participation this week but Frazier and Lathers continue to be limited. That means the Vols' projected starting linebacker trio won't get any work together this spring. Developing cohesion under such circumstances will be difficult.

"It does make it tougher," Mitchell-Thornton conceded. "It helps to know what the next person is doing beside you. If you know what he's doing, you know where you're supposed to fit in for the most part."

Even with continuity lacking, Mitchell-Thornton believes this linebacker corps will be much better than the 2009 corps was.

"Oh, I like this group a lot," he said. "There's a lot more depth than we had last year. We've got a lot of good guys, now that Austin Johnson came over (from fullback). We've got a lot of help this year.

"Last year we were low in numbers but this year we've got a lot of guys that can help us out. If one guy is tired or hurt, we've got somebody to replace him. That ought to help us out a lot."

With so many linebackers trying to learn multiple positions, you'd think the Vols might be confused. Mitchell-Thornton says that isn't the case, thanks to the simplicity of the scheme being installed by first-year defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.

"It helps a lot," Mitchell-Thornton said. "Last year somebody new (to the playing rotation) had to catch on to everything, and it took so long to get used to it. But this defense is so much easier to get used to and be able to go full speed.

"Last year we were a little hesitant because we weren't used to it. With this defense, we're already used to it and we're able to go full-speed on every play."


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