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Tennessee Football: Who all will be a part of the Vols LB rotation?

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When Josh Heupel released the depth chart for when Tennessee Football faces the Virginia Cavaliers Saturday, only one unit on defense didn’t have co-starters at any position. Aaron Beasley was penciled in at weakside linebacker, and BYU Cougars Keenan Pili was penciled in at middle linebacker.

Given the fact that the Vols lost starting linebacker Jeremy Banks from last year’s team, that’s pretty impressive. Linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary touted both and noted that they have turned into leaders not just for their unit but for the whole team.

“Those are the guys that obviously coming out of camp have established themselves as the starters, really coming out of the spring,” he said. “Those guys, both of them, Beasley and Pili, had really good camps.”

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Beasley was the leading tackler for the Vols last year, and he played most of the season out of position. His best two games were against the South Carolina Gamecocks and in the Orange Bowl against the Clemson Tigers, when he had three and four tackles for a loss respectively.

What do those two games have in common? He was starting at weakside linebacker, where he’ll be this year, in place of Banks. Beasley said the offseason flew by but noted that his strong finish to last season helped with his belief in himself.

“I feel like my confidence has improved for sure,” he said. “Ending off of last year was all good, but I’m trying not to worry about that too much, just focus on what’s ahead.”

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A big help on that front has been playing alongside Pili. Not only does that allow Beasley to play his natural position, but he can also trust Pili to not cause the same type of stir Banks caused toward the end of last season, possibly costing Tennessee Football a College Football Playoff spot.

Remember, Banks was suspended vs. South Carolina, and all reports seemed to confirm he got into a fight with Hendon Hooker. Nobody has to worry about Pili having those same issues. Beasley noted that they had meshed since his arrival in the Winter.

“When we first started in January, we were already watching film and connecting that way,” he said. “I think he’s fit in pretty well.”

Jean-Mary touted Pili’s poise, noting that his experience playing the sport at this level for four seasons is an advantage he brings to the unit. He even registered two tackles when BYU upset Tennessee Football back in 2019, early into Jeremy Pruitt’s second year as head coach.

Standing at 6’3″ 235 pounds, he’s got the necessary size to play the position as well. Although he may not have Banks’ athleticism, that’s up for debate, and it’s outweighed by better leadership, fundamentals and Beasley moving over to his natural spot.

“Knowing where to be and knowing the defense, obviously that’s a big part of it, but when the ball snapped, can you be in position to make plays, whether that be in the passing game or versus the run, and he’s done that on a consistent level,” Jean-Mary said of Pili. “He’s he’s been a breath of fresh air because he’s one of those kids that’s asked the right questions, wants to know how he can get better every day.” 

Still, the Vols need enough bodies to run a deep rotation at the position. After all, they didn’t just lose Banks. Juwan Mitchell hit the transfer portal as well, and they want to be even deeper than last year, so who will Jean-Mary and Tim Banks turn to?

An obvious name has been Arion Carter. All offseason, chatter in practice has turned Carter into one of the most hyped up newcomers in the SEC. Jean-Mary pretty much said as much when he noted that the coaches expect Carter to be on the field Saturday against the Virginia Cavaliers.

“Arion is an explosive kid, super athletic,” he said. “Was committed to a Division I school as a running back, so you see the athleticism there, but the poise, the maturity, he’s shown all those things, which has put him in line to play early.”

Interestingly enough, though, Carter isn’t the only freshman making some waves. Jeremiah Telander out of Georgia, despite not having the same level of hype or athleticism, has been turning some heads due to his understanding of the game.

The son of a college football coach, Jean-Mary says his experience growing up in the game is showing early on. That may not translate into having a high ceiling, but it certainly could help Tennessee Football this year as they try to use more bodies.

“He has those natural skills where maybe he sees things that other young players don’t, and the other thing I’d say about him, he’s aggressive,” he said. “He’s one of those see ball hit ball guys and he’s going to try to run through a wall, gonna make a tackle and that aggression shows and helps him make plays.”

Elijah Simmons is another linebacker who has more experience than Carter or Telander. Like Carter, he was an in-state commitment. Coming from the 2022 class, he was the first four-year player to ever commit to and sign with Heupel.

After spending last year adjusting to the college game, Jean-Mary indicated Herring should be much more prepared to step onto the field this year. That gives the Vols another player they can use if they are trying to go three-deep at the position.

“He’s a big, strong kid, has some athleticism, but I think the game probably moved a little fast for him last year,” Jean-Mary said of Herring. “I think it’s slowed down to the point now that he understands how to play linebacker as far as reading his keys and understanding formations and situations. I’ve seen him grow there. He still has a ways to go, which everybody does, but we would feel 100 times more comfortable putting him in the game because I think he understands the task at hand in playing linebacker now.”

In addition to Herring, Kalib Perry also committed to Tennessee Football in the 2022 class, so for two linebacker spots, the Vols have the potential to go three-deep at each. That should give them a much deeper and more effective rotation than last year.

On top of that, teammates are turning to that position for leadership. Pili has led by example ever since arriving at Tennessee Football from BYU, and Beasley has emerged into a leader with his own experience. Beasley noted his motto to the team is just go win.

“Win them all,” he said. “our team goal in general is just to win the East, so we’re focused on that, but we’re taking it week by week, one opponent at a time and just being the best each week, each Saturday being the best team on the field.”

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