Many football “experts” will say its best to guarantee starters at positions wherever you can so they can develop confidence and not make mistakes due to playing under fear of losing their spot. Tennessee Football is taking the exact opposite approach at linebacker.
Although Aaron Beasley and Keenan Pili are penciled in as the starting weakside and middle linebackers respectively, linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary wants them looking over their shoulder. For him, this is a way to make sure they are playing fresh.
“Our goal is for every play that those guys are out there, and I think this is defensive-wide, is we want those guys to give 100 percent effort, and we want them to empty their tank,” Jean-Mary said Tuesday. “I’ve always felt like if guys did not feel like they were going to get replaced and have a chance to rest, that they always kind of hold back.”
Jean-Mary said Josh Heupel’s offense requires the Vols to have a deep rotation so they can always stay fresh. After all, with so much quick scoring, the defense is going to be on the field a lot of the time, and that means every position will need to be fresh.
For linebackers, that’s even more crucial. Tim Banks’ scheme puts a ton of pressure on them, as he focuses on complex blitz packages to force errant throws and stop the run, meaning they always have to play with their hair on fire.
“We want those guys to give everything they have, empty their tank, play 100 miles an hour knowing that they could come back to the sideline and rest and get a chance to go back,” Jean-Mary said. “I feel like for us, we always want to be the fastest and freshest team going into the fourth quarter, and I think the only way you can do that is if you get those guys the rest that they need, and I shouldn’t say rest, give them the breaks because if we’re getting in the 80-play range, that’s hard for guys to do that consistently and be able to play at their highest level.”
Then there’s the communication aspect. The Vols linebackers have to connect with the defensive line and the secondary, so in addition to having to play as hard as the defensive linemen, they have to be there mentally. Basically, they have to play fast and smart at all times.
Communication is key with this unit. Jean-Mary touted the improvement Tennessee Football has enjoyed as a defense in general when it comes to communication, and he said everybody has to do it, but that starts with the linebackers given their roles.
“We have as much responsibility in the passing game as we have in the running game,” he said. “We always say when the ball is thrown, we’re connected with the defensive backs when that ball gets downfield because of our underneath coverage or our man coverage, and then obviously with stopping the run, we are the guys that plug the holes for the defensive line, who has been doing a great job of getting that push up field.”