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Tennessee football LB spring practice preview

The complete overhaul of Tennessee football under head coach Josh Heupel is going much quicker than most would have expected. However, the Vols’ defense could certainly use some more tinkering, particularly at linebacker.

Tennessee lost plenty of talented players via the transfer portal when former coach Jeremy Pruitt was dismissed following the 2020 season. Most were defensive players that were initially attracted to Pruitt’s resume as a top defensive assistant at Alabama. It’s understandable that those players would bolt.

The Vols have overcome that with a high-scoring offense and multiple defensive looks, along with an approach that tries to play upfield with a wide array of different blitz and stunt packages. To continue to succeed at that – or do even more – the Vols need better play at linebacker. As a whole, Tennessee football needs to be appreciably better on defense.

Tennessee’s linebackers were good at times in pressuring opposing quarterbacks but never consistently good in pass coverage. The numbers speak for themselves. The Vols were 12th best in the SEC in pass coverage last season and 11th best in the conference in overall defense. Sure, the defensive backs have to carry most of that blame, but some of the passing yards allowed has to be attributed to the Vols’ linebacking corp, which could be rather ho-hum at times.

UT will have to replace Jeremy Banks from last season. Banks was expected to be one of Tennessee’s most electric defenders but instead had a disappointing senior season in 2022 that was punctuated by his role leading up to the South Carolina loss. Banks was, by all reports, a distraction before the loss to the Gamecocks in which he was suspended. That loss cost the Vols any realistic shot at the College Football Playoff.

Perhaps overshadowed by Banks at the beginning of the season, Aaron Beasley ended up being Tennessee’s most productive tackler with 76 takedowns. He also led the Vols in tackles for a loss with 13. Beasley was steady against the run and the explosive force that most expected out of Banks. One of the most important returning Vols at any position, Beasley will be perfecting his craft during spring camp.

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With Banks gone, the Vols need a dependable linebacker. Juwan Mitchell would have been a strong candidate after playing in 10 games last season, but he entered the transfer portal. Mitchell finished seventh amongst all Vols with 43 tackles in limited time. Solon Page III chipped in 37 tackles to finish ninth. However, he’s out of eligibility.

The spotlight will certainly be on Keenan Pili, who transferred from BYU. The Vols also signed three other linebackers, but they’ll be true freshmen. With his experience, Pili could be a pivotal player for the defense.

Pili finished the 2022 season as BYU’s second-leading tackler with 62 stops. He also had four tackles-for-a-loss, a sack, a pass breakup, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. That production alone would help the Vols, as Pili is likely to be a tough, inside run stopper. It remains to be seen if he can play sideline-to-sideline as Banks could. However, Pili also won’t likely bring Banks-style baggage to the locker room.

Here are links to the following position previews:

Here are links to the following position previews:

Running backs

Offensive Line

Defensive Backs

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