Prioritize football concerns: Inside linebacker

Marvin Westwestwords

This is a sing-a-long … I feel like something good is about to happen.

Do yourself a favor. Dismiss virus fears, budget cuts and politics for a few minutes. Prioritize football concerns and throw away the ones you can’t do anything about.

  • Are you convinced the Vols will play this fall?
  • Was your donation large enough to gain admission to Neyland Stadium?
  • Do you believe Jarrett Guarantano can rise to the level of a winning quarterback in his fifth season?
  • Will Cade Mays eventually secure eligibility after an arm-wrestling contest with Georgia and the NCAA?
  • What was lost in the departure of the famous strength coach? Surely Nick Saban didn’t help Craig Fitzgerald switch to the New York Giants. Nick wouldn’t do that, would he?

While you thin out those little distractions, I will focus on the Vol vacancy at inside linebacker.

Perhaps you have noticed that Daniel Bituli doesn’t live here anymore. He wasn’t quite as good as Frank Emanuel (College Football Hall of Fame) or Jack Reynolds (14 seasons in the NFL) but Daniel overcame injuries and led the team in tackles for three consecutive campaigns.

Bituli had 19 hits last Nov. 9 in the dramatic victory at Kentucky. He and Ja’Quain Blakely made that famous fourth-quarter, fourth-down, goal-line stop that saved the season.

He had 15 tackles against South Carolina and blocked a punt and scored a touchdown. That memory is relevant. If all goes well, Tennessee opens against the Gamecocks on Sept. 26. Somebody has to do at least some of what Bituli did.

Tennessee has one inside linebacker. Henry To’o To’o had 72 tackles last season, fourth most among freshmen in the United States of America. He made a big play on third down in that great goal-line stand against Kentucky. I keep bringing that up because it really mattered.

Brian Niedermeyer (courtesy of UT sports information)

Tennessee needs another inside linebacker. It actually needs three or four but the discovery or creation of a second starter is an absolute necessity. Brian Niedermeyer, new coach at that position, has a month to get it done.

Sophomore Quavaris Crouch could become the solution. He played inside and outside and a few fun snaps as a bully fullback last season. He’s returning from offseason shoulder surgery.

Jeremy Banks, second major reclamation project for Jeremy Pruitt, has potential. He’s a hitter.

J.J. Peterson, much higher in 2018 recruiting rankings than he has been on the depth chart, is a maybe. He looks like a player who has not yet seen the light.

Solon Page III, redshirt junior, remains a possibility. Aaron Beasley is a could-be. Bryson Eason and Martavius French are prize freshmen who may be forced to learn on the job.

Henry To’o To’o says never fear, the answer is near, something good is about to happen. He has total faith in Coach Niedermeyer. They have an unusually close relationship.

Niedermeyer was the primary recruiter when Tennessee was coaxing To’o To’o from Northern California to East Tennessee. The player was impressed. The coach learned to eat pani popo in the very Polynesian family home. He very quickly linked names and faces of the seven other children.

Henry said Brian was like a very wise big brother, rock-solid guidance, genuine interest. Smart, very smart. Cool, too. That was a bit surprising, considering roots – Eagle River, Alaska, to Butte Junior College to Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

To’o To’o says having Niedermeyer as linebacker coach is phenomenal, “a true blessing.”

Brian brings energy. To’o To’o calls it juice. The player believes the coach who recruited him will maximize his performance.

Interesting that Niedermeyer was also the primary recruiter as Crouch was choosing the Vols over Michigan and Clemson. Quavaris was a multi-faceted prep star in Charlotte, powerful running back, explosive defender, 31 touchdowns and 14 sacks as a junior. Injuries spoiled his senior season.

There never was a question about ability. At issue was which position.

Crouch played in all 13 UT games last season, made one start, had 28 tackles, twice batted down passes, carried the ball seven times as a battering ram and scored two touchdowns. He eventually concluded defense offered more longevity. That reduced the decision to outside linebacker or inside linebacker. His physique, 6-2, 235 and average wingspan, says inside.

Crouch is tough enough to win the fights and athletic enough to get a grip on good running backs.

Banks was another high school runner (1,941 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior at Cordova) who became a Vol linebacker in pursuit of more playing time.

He lost that chance and a lot more in a 4:15 a.m. conflict with a UT police officer. He was arrested on an old warrant for driving on a suspended license. After that, he talked way too much. Recording devices are lethal. He was dismissed from the team.

Banks apologized for embarrassing the university, the Vols, his coaches and family. He refused to give up and go away. He made very good grades. He did everything anybody suggested in a bid for reinstatement.

As Pruitt did for Jauan Jennings, the coach finally awarded a second chance. Look for Banks to do all he can to say thank-you. That would be something good.

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

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