Very experienced Pili is key to Vol defense

Marvin Westwestwords

Let us agree that Nico is No. 1 in importance in the preliminary outlook for Tennessee football. That makes center Cooper Mays No. 2.

You could choose edge rusher James Pearce or running back Dylan Sampson or one of the returning receivers, Bru McCoy or Squirrel White, as No. 3. I’ll listen. But I believe seven-year senior Keenan Pili (pronounced p-lee) has that responsibility and deserves that honor.

Keenan Pili

The very veteran linebacker was the missing link last season. He is the key to defensive improvement and that is critical.

I am now a believer that Josh Heupel cannot outscore everybody. There will be a Saturday or two when the Volunteers absolutely must make a stop or three to win a game.

Pili may not make the deciding tackle. One of the new defensive backs might make a play. A full-grown man up front could muscle up and stuff a threat. There are several possibilities.

I’m guessing Pili will be the glue that holds the defense together. He’ll help new coach William Inge get linebackers lined up correctly. He’ll read tea leaves and call out advantageous adjustments. I’m reasonably sure he’ll strike people near the line of scrimmage instead of 10 or 12 yards down the field.

Keenan Pili is big, 6-3 and 242. He can run. He’ll hit. He made 17 tackles for Brigham Young University against Arizona in 2021. He has natural leadership ability (quiet version, by example). He was twice a captain for the Cougars. If you are into genealogy, the Pili bloodline is prominent in Samoan history.

Keenan Pili is smart. He is a member of Tennessee’s football leadership council. The National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame named him to the Hampshire Honor Society for academic achievement. He earned a degree from BYU in 2022, before he came to the Vols.

Pili is one of America’s most mature college football players. He’ll be 26 next month. He is a married man. He knows where he has been and believes he knows where he is going.

He served a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He thought he would be in the National Football League by now but crashed into some very bad luck last September 2.

He suffered a serious arm injury early in the opening game against Virginia. He defied the pain and played on until he couldn’t lift the arm. He missed the next 11 games but remained engaged with the team. He was an “assistant” for then linebacker coach Brian Jean-Mary.

“Keenan is a special leader and was even while he was out,” said Heupel. “One of the first ones in the building. Constantly watching film. I think he was a real help to the young guys … Obviously, we feel he’s a difference-maker.”

The NCAA did something right. It saw Pili’s appeal his way. It said OK to one more season of eligibility. I won’t try to explain how he got to seven.

His goal in coming to Tennessee was to improve his pro scout grade. One of his reasons for continuing in college is to finish what he started. He remembers thinking through what to do.

“Who wouldn’t want to be here for another year? That was a big part of me wanting to come back. I love the coaches here, love the culture that they brought. I love my teammates.”

He loves Lindsey Pili, too. His wife voted yes, go for it.

Keenan never was a total stranger. He knew where Tennessee was on the map and there was video of him in UT files. He made a couple of tackles against the Vols in 2019 in Neyland Stadium, in a 29-26 overtime victory for BYU.

He made nine tackles against Heupel’s Central Florida team in the Boca Raton Bowl in 2020. Pili was defensive MVP. Of course, Heupel remembered him when his name popped up in the transfer portal.

Coach Inge recognized the potential from a distance. He tried to recruit Keenan for Washington.

Based on this spring practice, Inge echoed what Heupel said of last season, that Pili was very helpful with young linebackers.

“When you see him move around, he definitely gets your attention, because he can run fast and hit hard. He is very explosive. He does everything that you want a linebacker to do, and you combine that with him being ‘Uncle Grandpa,’ it’s awesome.”

The coach invented that nickname – Uncle Grandpa. I assume it means the old-timer is Uncle Keenan to sophomore linebackers and Grandpa Pili to freshmen. Be sure they had never seen anybody like him.

“When you have someone who has really been there and done that, that’s exactly what you want,” said Inge. “He is a true veteran who understands football – that’s probably the best thing that we’ve learned about Keenan – he really understands football. That really, really, really helps our defense.”

Inge says he looks forward to pushing Pili to being one of the best linebackers in America.

I think he needs a better nickname. Just look what “Hacksaw” did for Jack Reynolds.

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *