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Volunteer Countdown: LB Keenan Pili ready to prove himself at No. 4

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Linebacker Keenan Pili knows the purpose of Tennessee’s defense. He should. He’s old enough. 

With a season-ending injury behind him, the transfer from BYU knows what’s most important. Creating havoc.

“Our focus is on finding ways to get the ball to (the offensive) players because we are confident that once they have the ball, they will score,” said Pili, who ranks No. 4 in the OTH offseason countdown of most important Vols. 

Pili’s return for one more season should help. 

He was granted an extra year of eligibility after missing all but the first game last season due to a tricep injury. 

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Pili is set to play his seventh season of college football and his second at Tennessee.

Pili will help lead a linebacker unit filled with talented but less experienced players. 

Sophomores Arion Carter and Jeremiah Telander have both created excitement about their potential. 

Pili pointed to the development of Carter and Telander, as well as junior Kalib Perry and other young players, as a reason he’s bullish on UT’s linebackers. 

“I couldn’t be more excited for this room,” Pili said. “I feel like this room has really grown in a way that we kind of built our own little culture just in our room. 

“And I feel like guys, even though they may seem young and none of them act it, none of them work like that, none of them have those type of tendencies.”

It helps that Tennessee has a deep and talented defensive line in front of the Vols’ linebackers. 

Defensive coordinator Tim Banks said Tennessee should have the best defensive line in the country during the spring. 

Pili sees why. 

“This D-line is special,” Pili said, and I think people are gonna realize that when time comes. We’ve got so many people out there that wreak havoc. They’re aggressive and they’re always in the backfield.

“And as a linebacker, you’re playing behind that. That’s like answers to prayers, you know? Super excited about that combo they’re gonna have with our back end. …shoot, when you got a good D-line, and a good back end, that makes life a little bit easier on the LBs.”

And Pili should make things easier for his fellow linebackers. 

He’s the clear leader of the group with his age and experience. 

Pili, who will turn 26 on May 29, might be the most experienced defensive player in the country. 

That earned him the nickname “Uncle Grandpa,” according to linebackers coach William Inge, to go along with jokes from his teammates. 

“How was it playing with Josh Heupel?” his teammates have jokingly asked Pili. 

But no one is joking about Pili’s impact on Tennessee’s defense.

He’ll be one of the Vols’ most important players this fall.

“(Pili) 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 that we’ve learned about Keenan is he really understands football,” Inge said during the spring. “So him being able to do that on a day in and day out basis and a play in and playout basis, that’s something that really, really, really helps our defense and we look forward to really pushing him to being one of the best linebackers in America.”

Tennessee has the potential to produce one of the nation’s best offenses this fall, just as it did in 2022.

But the defense should play a bigger role in the Vols’ success this time around.

Both sides should see the benefits of that change.

Full interview HERE

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