Tennessee’s linebackers certainly had their ups and downs last season. Some stability would be welcome.
As for the positive among the second level of Vol defenders, Aaron Beasley became a known commodity throughout the SEC. At middle linebacker, he became Tennessee’s leading tackler and proved to be a physical player that could be counted on as much as any player on Tennessee’s team. Then, there was the not-so-great aspect of the Vols’ linebacking corp.
Former Vol Jeremy Banks was supposed to be a star last season. That didn’t happen. Moreover, Banks was in the middle of an off-field issue that led up to one of the most disappointing losses in Tennessee football history, a 63-38 defeat to South Carolina that ended any chance the Vols had to make the College Football Playoff. Moreover, Banks never quite lived up to his billing as one of the better linebackers in the SEC.
The Vols are expecting more from their linebackers this season, which begins with Beasley, who decided to return for his final season of eligibility.
“I had some things I needed to take care of in the offseason as far as getting my body back healthy,” Beasley said. “I’ve been really honing in on that, doing whatever it is that my trainers are telling me I needed to do to get back healthy.”
Beasley must have a high bar when it comes to his physical wellbeing. He didn’t miss any significant time last season and no injury was made public. After two very productive seasons, Beasley can certainly be considered a leader on defense and an important part of the Vols’ growth as a collective group.
“Really just bonding with my brothers,” he said of one of his offseason goals. “I really do feel like a strong, tight-knit group is a great group.”
In Banks’ place, the Vols will turn to Keenan Pili, who transferred from BYU. Pili was a two-time captain for the Cougars and is expected to become an immediate impact player.
“I feel like I’m continuing to get the mental aspect of it, becoming a better football player,” Pili said. “The physical is one thing but be able to go play in and play out is where you become great. I feel like I’m starting to make strides in that area.”
Tennessee defensive coordinator Tim Banks sees big things in the future for Pili this season after enrolling at UT in January.
“He was a great addition to our team this spring,” Banks said. “A tremendous man, a tremendous family man, big, athletic, we’re obviously super excited about watching him continue to develop during camp. I think all of our team, particularly on our side of the ball, really respect him because of his work ethic.
“He’s not really a real vocal person at this point, but I think as he gets more comfortable with our team, I think you’ll see him continue to become even more vocal.”
As far as vocal leadership at linebacker, that will mostly rely on Beasley, especially early in the season. That’s a role he’s grown into quite comfortably.
“I think with Aaron, obviously just confidence,” Banks said when asked what stands out about Beasley. “I think, honestly, he’s always been confident, but as the spotlight started to shift towards him a little bit (last season), I thought he got more comfortable in that setting. He’s been great.
“I think he’s had a tremendous offseason from a leadership perspective. I think he feels like he has a voice and people will obviously listen when they see the production that he has put together consistently.”
Time will tell, but it seems more stable times are ahead for the Vols at linebacker.