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Depth undid Tennessee and Vols’ LB Elijah Herring

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There was a time – not that long ago – in which losing Tennessee’s leading tackler would have been a major hurdle for the Vols to overcome. That doesn’t seem to be the case any longer.

News that Elijah Herring would enter the transfer portal and pursue other college football opportunities were met with mostly a ho-hum response this week as the Vols’ leading tackle from 2023 was gracious in his social media post that announced he would be leaving the Vols. Herring, albeit a struggle, filled a key role when Tennessee suffered a run of injuries at the linebacker position, led by the season-ending injury to Keenan Pili in September.

Herring was far from a superstar in place of Pili, but he at least held down the fort. Now, he’s discarded, hopefully, with an opportunity to play elsewhere and make a little NIL cash. Considering he just has two seasons of eligibility remaining, that would be a good idea. Now, how will this all affect the Vols? Well, the on-field portion is the most simple. Tennessee will just play Pili at middle linebacker as it had planned to do all along. But what happens if the Vols lose Pili or Arion Carter, who is expected to start at outside linebacker, to injury? Well, the Vols have options.

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There’s no question that Jeremiah Telander’s emergence during spring camp made Herring’s departure more manageable.

“Having Telander around has been great,” first-year Tennessee linebackers coach William Inge said. “I’ve seen him literally grow and take steps each day – and that’s something that we really try to do as a group. 

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“The biggest thing that he brings is leadership, toughness and the ability to really understand the system. The things that we’ve really liked about him thus far…is he’s been very, very calm and calming everyone down when the storm comes. He knows that he can put it on him to be the person who wants to be accountable and be the guy that is going to go out there and make the play. We’ve definitely been pleased with him thus far in the spring.”

Calm would not be an apt description of Herring’s play at linebacker last season, especially in pass coverage. If Telander can bring that sort of sense of calm, pencil him in as the starter in 2025 after Pili finally completes his eligibility.

“That’s awesome when you have someone who’s been there and done that,” Inge said of Pili. “That’s exactly what you want in your room. He has an open mind for learning and when you have someone who is a true veteran and understands football – that’s probably the best thing we’ve learned about Keenan – is that he really understands football. So, him being able to do that on a day-in, day-out basis, and a play-in, play-out basis, that’s something that really, really helps our defense. 

“We look forward to really pushing him to be one of the best linebackers in America.”

That’s some strong praise. Wait, Inge wasn’t done.

“Hearing him is the biggest thing; when you hear him on the sidelines, you can tell he understands football and knows some of the schematic things that we want,” Inge said of budding star outside linebacker Arion Carter. “When you see him move, when we look at some of our player speeds and player loads, he is always one of the top guys up there from a movement standpoint, so we know we are going to get someone who is coming back that’s probably even faster than all the guys that are currently in the room.”

Carter missed time last season with a shoulder injury that also restricted him at times during spring camp. That didn’t slow him down.

“That’s what really has me excited,” Inge said. “He is the one guy in the morning that is coming in, every morning, trying to get a head start on what’s going on today. What are we going to do, what’s all in the install, or ‘Hey coach, I want to learn about both positions.’ It is awesome having a chance to really talk with him, and he is exactly what you want in your program.” 

While the loss of Herring is manageable and partly expected, his departure signifies a change in the Vols’ overall depth. They can lose their leading tackler and still, almost assuredly, be better than they were before his departure.

“As we come out of the spring, we feel very good about our depth…From a depth standpoint, we feel pretty good,” Inge said. “Now, when it comes to what you have to be able to do, the beauty of what we are doing now, and we tell the guys: you have no idea how much more learning you are going to experience from the end of the spring to the beginning of your game week. 

“Everything that we have done, they are going to go through it again two more times, whether we go through our installs from a scheme standpoint or whether they go and actually get the rep in from a repetition standpoint, they are going to be able to do everything a couple more times. So, when they do that, now that will enhance their confidence (and) make their preparation be a little higher. That should be able to have some indirect improvements in their performances.” 

And Tennessee’s roster.

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