It’s football time in Tennessee – always

Marvin Westwestwords

Things are going to be different from now on.

Take my word for it.

Put it in the bank.

I remember thinking, early in 2021, that Brian Kuc Jean-Mary was a very brave man or he didn’t know what he was doing.

He was going to be linebacker coach at Tennessee without linebackers.

The Volunteers had nice young men in linebacker meetings but they were limited in ability or short on experience or both. Previous starters and other remnants from Jeremy Pruitt’s final season, part owners of a 3-8 record, were leaving town.

New defensive coordinator Tim Banks realized he was stuck with what he could find. Ah yes, I remember it well.

Redshirt junior Kivon Bennett had been dismissed for having somebody’s drug retailing equipment and a gun in his car. Senior Deandre Johnson transferred to Miami and sophomores Quavaris Crouch to Michigan State and Henry To’o To’o to Alabama. All four could play.

Another level of linebackers went missing, too. Freshmen Martavius French and Aaron Willis, top-rated signee of 2021, entered the transfer portal soon after they were suspended by Josh Heupel.

Sophomore Aaron Beasley was suspended for a once-in-a-lifetime violation, animal cruelty, swatting a pesky kitten with the back of his hand. A friend girl, owner of the kitty, brought charges. Aaron repented.

You don’t want to be reminded of what all Jeremy Banks did.

Such attrition at one position is stunning. Tennessee was left hanging on for dear life.

The 2022 season wasn’t very good on defense but it was better. Beasley was improved, one of the most improved on Tennessee’s roster.

Banks never was great against pass receivers but he popped some runners under the chin. In his spare time, he was confusing. His absence from the South Carolina rout was contagious. Others showed up but you couldn’t tell it.

Somewhat surprisingly, linebacker Juwan Mitchell transferred again. Strange road map: from Middletown, New Jersey to Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kan. He went to Rutgers, returned to Butler, committed to Minnesota, flipped to Texas and moved to Tennessee.

He’s gone again but things are different now. There are freshmen and sophomores available. Four-stars Arion Carter and Jalen Smith, Elijah Herring, Jeremiah Telander, Kalib Perry and others are on their way up.

Brigham Young transfer Keenan Pili, a senior and former captain of the Cougars, has the most potential to make the biggest difference in the shortest time.

Caleb Williams, a linebacker who played for the Liberty Flames and former coach Hugh Freeze before he went to Auburn, joined the Volunteers.

Yes, there are others named Caleb Williams, not just the USC quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy.

“Excited and blessed to have received the opportunity to play for my dream school, Vol football, as a PWO,” Williams announced.

PWO is preferred walk-on.

Carter is bigger news. He chose the Vols out of 41 offers. On fourth down, decision day, Tennessee pushed back Alabama and Ohio State. Carter was the 13th-ranked prep linebacker in the country.

Improvement in Tennessee’s overall defense starts with linebackers. The secondary has to get better, too. It has attracted the most attention.

I have not forgotten the afternoon former Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers, filling up empty time on the Paul Finebaum Show, twice said “Tennessee has still not fixed the fact that it is terrible in pass defense. The Vols are terrible. It is a fact.”

Rodgers, SEC TV analyst, said the Vols “cannot cover anybody on the back end right now. It’s been kind of glossed over because they score so many points.”

As at linebacker, coaches are trying to fix the secondary problem by recruiting more and better defenders. Some progress allegedly showed now and then during spring practice. That part was undoubtedly closed to the media.

More pressure on rival quarterbacks is another defensive project. Making that happen won’t be easy, either. Byron Young is gone to the NFL.

It is comforting that Tennessee has done something about defensive deficiencies, something more than plan to outscore everybody. I’m guessing imports are better than exports. We’ll see.

Here are measuring sticks: Jarod Mayo in 2007 was the most recent linebacker to be named first team all-SEC.  Eric Berry in 2009 was the most recent Tennessee defensive back to make a real impact in the NFL.

Defensive Vols Rico McCoy, A.J. Johnson, Cameron Sutton and Jalen Reeves-Maybin certainly were’t bad.

Moral of this yardstick: Not much has happened lately. It is about to happen. Take Heupel’s word for it.

The coach says “We’ve added athleticism, we’ve added length. We have a lot more competition, certainly on the defensive side of the football.”

Tennessee has added enough talent for Heupel to say “We’re in for a massive jump” on defense in Year 3.

Count on it.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is [email protected].

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