Yesterday we took a look at easily the best position of the 2018 class, the Defensive Line, a nice companion piece to the post-Early Signing Day look at the overall DL. Next up is a look at Linebacker, which along with the DL will look different in Jeremy Pruitt’s and Kevin Sherrer’s 3-4 scheme than it has in a while. After adding JUCO star Jordan Allen in the Early Signing period, Tennessee signed arguably the best overall player in its class yesterday in JJ Peterson, giving the Vols two very talented LBs in the class, both of whom will be expected to contribute immediately. Obviously the Vols missed on 5-star Quay Walker, who many thought was a Tennessee lean until his visit to UGA last weekend – Walker would have taken this LB class to a whole other level, but alas he’ll now be playing in Athens instead.
Peterson, who the Vols beat out Alabama for, is the kind of elite player that Tennessee simply does not have enough of, and therefore should be expected to be an instant impact guy. He can really do it all: rush the QB off the edge, make plays in space, and even drop into coverage. He is talented enough to play any of the LB positions in the 3-4. As it pertains to Tennessee’s relatively disappointing Signing Day, it must be remembered that had Peterson chosen to not go public with his commitment back in early January his signing would have been celebrated much more.
Allen is more of a pass-rushing stand-up 3-4 OLB. He has great size, speed and athleticism and projects as a guy who could get a lot of reps immediately since he was brought in specifically for the 3-4. Both being on campus for spring and the fact that he’s a JUCO prospect enhance his overall value and increase the likelihood that he’ll be ready to contribute right away.
When it comes to the overall LB corps, Tennessee has some real talent already on campus to go along with the two high-level talents of Peterson and Allen. Darren Kirkland has shown that when healthy he’s an All-SEC type player. Daniel Bituli had a really great season on a really crappy team in 2017, and could be paired with Kirkland, Will Ignot (who in my opinion is an elite-level prospect) and Peterson on the inside to form a really strong quartet of ILBs. Quart’e Sapp and Austin Smith are two guys with top-shelf athleticism who will help on the outside, and Solon Paige and Shanon Reid give the Vols some young depth here as well.
One wildcard here is Sophomore-to-be Maleik Gray. Gray is a bit of a tweener in that he currently is too small to play a traditional LB role but might not have enough speed to play at a high level in the secondary. As one of the too-few elite type players on Tennessee’s roster, though, Pruitt and Sherrer must find a way to get this Gray on the field somehow. I envision him as a Jabril Peppers at Michigcan type of player – a disruptor who plays close to the line of scrimmage (like a LB) an either blitzes or plays the run but is more than capable of covering RBs and TEs if not Slot WRs as well.
It will be up to Defensive Coordinator Sherrer (who was previously UGA’s ILB coach) and LB Coach Chris Rumph to get the most out of a LB corps that while short on proven talent has a lot of options and legitimate talent as well.