In this series, we are going to take a look at the talent on the Tennessee Volunteers’ roster headed into the 2015 season. The Volunteers are poised to be one of the more improved teams in the country this year, and their success or failure will be largely determined by their defense. The unit saw a lot of improvement last year, but must be even better in 2015. This post will examine the Vols’ linebackers, while we’ll take a look at the defensive linemen in the coming days.
The Volunteers return a rising star at Will linebacker in Jalen Reeves-Maybin. As a true freshman in 2013, Reeves-Maybin dominated on special teams, and then moved into the starting lineup in 2014, tying for the team lead with 101 tackles. A former safety, Reeves-Maybin’s best asset is his athleticism, and he constantly showed off his speed, making plays from sideline to sideline. Reeves-Maybin finished third on the team with 11 tackles for a loss. Perhaps most impressive was his ability to diagnose plays and dart in the backfield to make the stop.
In these two clips, Reeves-Maybin reads the play and gets in the backfield before the pulling guard can block him. Reeves-Maybin fits the attacking one gap scheme perfectly. He is able to see the play and aggressively attack his gap.
Reeves-Maybin also showed ability to diagnose and shut down screen passes.
In coverage, Reeves-Maybin was an effective player in zone and used his athleticism to cover backs and tight ends in man. Once again, he shows off his smarts in coverage. Here, he is playing the robber zone in Cover 1 Robber. Reeves-Maybin reads the quarterbacks eyes and ends up with an interception.
In this clip, Reeves-Maybin again reads the quarterback’s eyes and begins to step in front of a slant route, forcing the quarterback to hold the ball and take a sack.
While he wasn’t perfect in his first season as a starter, Reeves-Maybin was a playmaker for the Vols. He is one of the smartest players on the defense and the scheme fits his athletic skill set perfectly. I look for even more improvement in 2015.
At the Will linebacker spot, the top reserve is Cortez McDowell. Reminding many of Reeves-Maybin, McDowell dominated on special teams as a true freshman, leading the team with 14 special teams stops. The former safety used his speed to dart down the field and make open field tackles like this one.
He will rotate in behind Reeves-Maybin, and continue leading on special teams.
Elliott Berry, another sophomore, also provides depth at Will linebacker. Berry played in 9 games on special teams as a true freshman. He is another former safety who provides athleticism.
On the other side at the Sam linebacker spot, Curt Maggitt is returning as the starter. Maggitt alternates between the Sam and defensive end, playing Sam in 4-3 looks and moving to end when the Sam comes off the field for the nickel. While Maggitt is best in a three point stance as an edge rusher, he is more than capable as a standup linebacker. With the rise of the spread offense, the Vols don’t spend much time in the 4-3, but when they do, Maggitt is a very good run stopper. Maggitt is a great fit as the Sam, because this player must be a quality run defender.
As a hybrid defensive end, Maggitt has plenty of strength to take on blocks and make tackles.
He also has great speed, and excels at shooting gaps for tackles in the backfield.
Maggitt ended up with 15 tackles for a loss last season, many of which came from the Sam linebacker spot. While he’ll spend more time at end, Maggitt is a very important part of the defense when Tennessee goes to the 4-3.
The biggest question facing the Vols defense going into 2015 is who will start at Mike linebacker? After losing All-SEC linebacker A.J. Johnson, Tennessee has a big hole and no one player has stepped into it yet. Junior Kenny Bynum started one game in 2014 when Johnson was out, but has yet to claim the job. Also competing is sophomore Colton Jumper and true freshman Darrin Kirkland Jr. These three have have pulled ahead of redshirt freshman Dillon Bates, redshirt freshman Gavin Bryant, and true freshman Austin Smith since the beginning of fall camp.
Bynum is solid as an interior run defender, but lacks athleticism compared to the younger linebackers. Here you can see Bynum flowing downhill, taking on a block, and making a nice tackle in a goal line situation.
This is where Bynum is at his best. Stopping the run between the tackles. However, when facing spread offenses, Bynum’s lack of athleticism would likely hinder Tennessee when he is forced to play in space.
Jumper is a walk-on who saw action in one game last season, but he is seeing plenty of looks with the first team in fall camp.
Kirkland Jr. is a highly touted recruit who is a solid all-around player. Defensive coordinator John Jancek has raved about him this fall. He is likely the most athletic option at the position and the long term answer. My best guess is that Bynum’s experience helps him hold on to the spot for the short term, but Kirkland will be starting before too long.
Bryant and Smith have yet to see game action. Bryant has made his name known in practice as a hard hitter, so he will definitely be a force on special teams for the Vols. Smith has turned heads in fall camp with his athleticism and explosiveness.
Bates came in as a highly rated recruit and was seeing playing time as a reserve early in 2014, but received a medical redshirt after a torn labrum knocked him out for the season. Before he was lost for the season, Bates flashed talent on plays like this one.
Bates will be a key reserve as he comes back from his injury in 2015.
Jancek has talked a lot about wanting to rotate his linebackers more this year. The Vols are finally deep enough to get the reserves on the field and not take a big step back. I expect multiple linebackers to see playing time this season. Even Reeves-Maybin likely won’t see as many snaps as he did last year, when he had to play almost every snap after the injury to Bates.
Overall, linebacker is a concern for the Vols, as Johnson is a big loss. However, Reeves-Maybin is a rising star and Tennessee is as deep as ever at both Mike and Will.