Tennessee Vols linebacking has hit bottom. Has the program? They go together | Adams

John Adams
Knoxville News Sentinel

A dreadful Tennessee football season had almost come to an end when then-coach Jeremy Pruitt announced Dec. 1 that linebacker Kivon Bennett had been dismissed from the team.

Bennett was arrested after police discovered 44 grams of marijuana, 58 baggies, a scale and a handgun in the car Bennett was driving. None of those items are regarded as tools of a linebacker’s trade. The evidence was damning enough that a dismissal was Pruitt’s only option.

Losing Bennett for just one game was significant, though. Amid a 3-7 season, his 7.5 tackles for loss stood out on a deficient defense.

The end of Bennett’s Tennessee career marked the beginning of UT’s current linebacker crisis. The position seems almost haunted.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as though Tennessee’s linebacking corps when fully manned was wreaking havoc from sideline to sideline last season. On its best days in 2020, it was ordinary. But there’s something to be said for showing up and being available.

Since Bennett’s departure, linebacker attrition has become epidemic. No one is more aware of that than new coach Josh Heupel, who is doing his best to patch up the gaping holes in his defense.

That’s why former Texas linebacker Juwan Mitchell’s decision to join the Vols should have touched off a celebration in the football office. Mitchell led the Longhorns in tackles last season, but any lettered linebacker would have been welcomed by Tennessee.

UT’s lost linebackers include transfers Deandre Johnson (Miami), Quavaris Crouch (Michigan State) and Henry To’o To’o (Alabama). Like Bennett, all three had starting experience, and To’o To’o likely would have been Tennessee’s best defensive player had he stayed.

But another tier of linebackers is missing, too. 

Linebacker Martavius French also has departed. He announced he was entering the transfer portal not long after Heupel suspended him and several other players for their involvement in a drug-related incident at Stokely Hall. Heupel said the players would have to “work their back,” a process which French apparently didn’t find appealing.

Tennessee's Jerod Mayo takes down  Florida quarterback Tim Tebow on Saturday at Neyland Stadium.

Photo by Cathy Clarke, Knoxville News Sentinel staff

Aaron Beasley might have helped take up the linebacker slack but also has been suspended – for abusing a kitten. I can’t imagine Heupel allowing him back on the team. A coach at a new school doesn’t need that kind of publicity.

Such attrition at one position is stunning. It’s magnified by UT’s history at the position. The downfall of Tennessee’s linebacking coincides with the program’s overall drop-off.

The Vols last played in an SEC championship game in 2007. The following spring, linebacker Jerod Mayo was an NFL Draft first-round pick by the New England Patriots. Since then, the NFL has drafted only one UT linebacker. The Detroit Lions picked Jalen Reeves-Maybin in the fourth round in 2017.

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During Tennessee’s more prosperous times, its linebackers advanced to the NFL on a regular basis. From 1994 through 2007, 15 Tennessee linebackers were drafted. All three starting linebackers – Al Wilson, Eric Westmoreland and Raynoch Thompson – on UT’s national championship team eventually were drafted.

Older UT fans remember linebacking as a defensive strength in the early 1970s.

In the 1970 draft, Jack Reynolds was a first-round pick, and Steve Kiner was a third-round pick. Jackie Walker and Ray Nettles were drafted in 1972, and Jamie Rotella and Carl Johnson were drafted in 1973. Those linebackers played prominent roles on Tennessee teams that went 40-7 from 1969 through 1972.

That was a long time ago. And it seems even longer when you look at Tennessee’s current linebacking corps.

John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or john.adams@knoxnews.com. Follow him at: twitter.com/johnadamskns.