The rash of injuries hindered Tennessee's linebacker play in 2009 but should upgrade its linebacker play in 2010. Because so many guys were forced to fill in a year ago, the Vols find themselves entering this season with five 'backers who earned starts last season. Thompson started 11 games, Lathers five, Reveiz and Frazier four each, King two.
Moreover, last year's health problems forced several guys to play multiple positions in the linebacker corps. That provides linebackers coach Lance Thompson with a level of flexibility and versatility that he didn't have a year ago.
The key figure in the linebacker mix is Reveiz, a 224-pound senior whose hustle and savvy enable him to overcome a mere 5-10 frame. Former UT defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said Reveiz was playing "like an All-American" prior to his knee injury last fall, when he recorded 27 stops, including 4.5 tackles for loss, in the first 3 1/2 games.
In addition to providing plays and leadership, Reveiz called the Vols' defensive signals and made sure everyone was lined up correctly. His loss was monumental.
Attempting to rush his rehabilitation, he suffered a minor setback during spring practice. Reportedly, Reveiz should be fine when preseason camp opens in August. If so, he projects to be one of the SEC's better middle linebackers.
Backing Reveiz is Austin Johnson, a 6-2, 231-pound junior. Johnson recorded 580 tackles as a high school linebacker in Hickory, N.C., but moved to fullback shortly after arriving at UT two years ago. He embraced the return to defense this spring, making terrific progress.
Thompson, a 6-1, 228-pound senior, returns for another year as the starter on the strong side, backed by King (6-1, 222) and junior Daryl Vereen (5-11, 221). Thompson registered 35 stops, 7 tackles for loss, a sack, a fumble forced and 2 fumble recoveries last fall. King, who excels against the pass, recorded 24 tackles, 3 passes defended, 2 pass breakups and an interception. Vereen posted 1 tackle last fall.
Redshirt sophomore Lathers (6-0, 217) and senior Frazier (6-0, 221) are battling for the weakside linebacker spot held by Rico McCoy the past three seasons, with sophomore Nigel Mitchell-Thornton (6-0, 230) in reserve. Lathers is the leading tackler among all UT returnees, having recorded 52 stops last fall. Frazier chipped in 38, including a sack and 3 quarterback hurries. Mitchell-Thornton registered 9 tackles last season.
Even with Nick Reveiz and Frazier held out of spring scrimmages, Tennessee appears to be significantly deeper at linebacker than it was a year ago.
Johnson looked like a natural at his old outpost - recording a team-high 8 stops, 2 tackles for loss, a sack and an interception in the first scrimmage, then a team-high 7 stops with 1 TFL in scrimmage No. 2. He closed out a spectacular spring with a 5-tackle performance in the Orange & White Game.
Lathers registered 7 stops, a tackle for loss, a sack and a hurry in the first scrimmage, then led all tacklers in the Orange & White Game with 9 stops, including a sack.
Shane Reveiz recorded 6 stops in the first scrimmage. Vereen made 6 stops in the second, along with 4 tackles in the O&W Game.
Tennessee signed three high school linebackers last February - Raiques Crump (6-2, 220), Martaze Jackson (6-2, 225) and John Propst (6-1, 220). Crump and Jackson got 2-star ratings from Scout.com, while Propst was pegged a 4-star prospect.
Position outlook: Solid. A rash of injuries wouldn't be nearly as detrimental this fall as it was last fall.