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LB Keenan Pili depended on as leader despite limited experience as a Tennessee Vol

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It’s pretty rare to place so much importance on a player who has been as limited as Keenan Pili. However, that’s exactly what Tennessee’s football team is going to do.

Forget the fact that Pili has only played one game at Tennessee last season. He played extensively at BYU before transferring to Tennessee before the 2023 season. That didn’t go so well. Despite being deemed an immediate leader in offseason workouts, Pili suffered a torn triceps muscle that ended his season prematurely in in the season opener. Now, despite that limited amount of playing time, Pili has garnered a starting position and the respect of his teammates.

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“I’m super comfortable,” said Pili, who is entering his seventh season in college. “I think, kind of like some of the guys in our room, once you have that year under your belt, that’s your biggest leap—especially for incoming freshmen or people like me who maybe transferred from a different school. Once you have that first year under your belt, you feel way more comfortable in the scheme, way more comfortable in the new city and new place, for sure.”

Experienced as a Vol or not, Pili’s teammates see a known commodity at middle linebacker when Pili is in the game. 

“When you see him move around, he definitely gets your attention, because he is one of those linebackers that you love because he can run fast and hit hard,” fellow linebacker Jeremiah Telander said. “He is very explosive, he can get off the ground, he can bend his pads, he can get low. He does everything that you want a linebacker to do.

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“And you combine that with him kind of being ‘Uncle Grandpa,’ it’s awesome.”

Being “Uncle Grandpa’ means more than just being old. It means Pili is the leader of the linebacking corp.

“I am just taking the opportunities,” Pili said. “When it’s time to lead, lead. When it’s time to follow, follow. When it’s time to pick up one of your teammates, pick them up, and when it’s time to push your teammates a little further, make sure you push your teammates. 

“It’s really as simple as that, I feel like, when it comes to leadership or what he wants for the (linebacker) room or this team. Leadership is best coupled with action.

Pili is certainly one of those player that could use spring practice to get better and more accustomed to the Vols’ offense. However, staying healthy is the No. 1 goal.

“I think the biggest thing for me is what I have learned over the years, I have to trust the people who know more than me and just trusting whatever parameters they give me,” Pili said. “Maybe they say ‘Do this,’ and maybe I think I should be doing something else, but I just do what I am told. I feel like the people who have been placed here, especially at Tennessee, we have so many resources and people that have education for those types of things. So, I just listen and when I get my time to work, I work.”

That time will ultimately come this fall. Now is the time to practice … and stay healthy.

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