Coverage and spy were huge issues for Tennessee football at linebacker last year, but the reason was obvious. They lost their two starters from the year before, and their one proven linebacker, Juwan Mitchell, went down for the year.
The Vols were lucky to open up the season against two teams that have more pro-style offenses with drop-back passers. Mitchell finally got back on the field last week against the Akron Zips.
Given the fact that UT’s SEC opener is against the Florida Gators, a team with a mobile quarterback, Mitchell’s return couldn’t be more timely. Linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary touted his performance in his return.
“For someone who hasn’t played in a full calendar year in live action, I thought he did a really good job of getting lined up and getting the defense aligned as far of the rest of the eleven guys,” Mack said in a Tuesday press conference. “The communication part, which is what we were a little nervous about, we thought he did a great job.”
In terms of his stat line, Mitchell had just one solo tackle and a hurry. Jean-Mary acknowledged that he was a bit out of control at times but that he made some plays.
With him back on the field, Jean-Mary says the Vols effectively have three starters at linebacker for two spots. Mitchell joins Aaron Beasley and Jeremy Banks.
“For us to be successful, all three of those guys are going to have to play like starters,” he said. “We don’t look at it any different when either guy is on the field.”
The last time Mitchell saw the field, ironically, was last year at Florida. Josh Heupel brought him on board as a transfer from the Texas Longhorns because of the Vols’ desperate need at linebacker.
Without him, UT turned to Beasley and Banks. However, Beasley is a converted safety, and Banks is a converted running back. Solon Page III also joined the rotation.
While Banks earned Preseason All-SEC recognition this year as the leader among all returning linebackers in tackles, both he and Beasley had issues in coverage. Jean-Mary says the unit is getting better there.
“We are multiple, so we ask our linebackers to be in different spots on the field in our zone coverages,” he said. “I think we are getting there, but we would just like to see the production increase, especially with the underneath coverage in our zones.”
Mitchell’s return should obviously help with the linebackers improving in that field. Beasley has improved in that area too, though.
In each of the first two games, Beasley was able to force an interception with his pass rush. The first one was on the first play from scrimmage for the Vols’ season, and it was because he stayed home on a reverse.
“Aaron has just taken it to another level just because he knew about some of the struggles he had last year, and he has made more of a commitment to becoming a better football player all the way around,” Jean-Mary said. “You can see that by the way he has played in these first three games.”
These improvements in coverage are crucial this week when Tennessee football faces Florida. Anthony Richardson may be banged up, and his passing skills may be limited.
However, he is still a dual-threat quarterback. Containing that position last year is what got the Vols in trouble, as Matt Corral ran for 195 yards on them.
“He can make moves in space and has a live arm as a quarterback, so you have to respect his throwing ability,” Jean-Mary said of Richardson. “He’s the total package. I know when he gets in space, there are some designed runs for him. He’s a threat along with their other three very talented running backs.”
As bad as Akron is, that wasn’t a bad warm-up game for the Vols this week. D.J. Irons is also a mobile quarterback and runs a lot of RPO plays in Joe Moorhead’s offense.
To be fair, Irons didn’t run that much against the Vols. However, Jean-Mary noted that preparing for him helped them get ready to prepare for Richardson.
“With the talent Richardson has, we actually feel like we’re a week ahead as far as actual quarterback running game,” he said. “Obviously, (Richardson is) a different animal, but some of the defenses and some of the fits we’ve prepared for.”