There’s been a lot of talk about the linebacker position in the class of 2018, as the Vols have yet to land a player there. Questions abound:
Should the Vols take more than one linebacker in 2018?
The argument for taking more than one LB in this class is that, while there is some young talent on the roster (and there is no doubt that’s true for returnees, but early returns on class of 2017 have also been strong), last season proved that there just isn’t enough top-end talent, especially if injuries strike like they did in 2016. So, the idea is to stockpile as many talented players as you can, just as you would at any position.
The argument against taking more than one LB in this class is that not only do you have a large number of LBs on the roster right now and even into at least 2018, but Tennessee and college football in general is moving to a 4-2-5 base defense, meaning there are fewer and fewer linebacker spots on a roster. That nickel base also allows a creative defensive coordinator like Bob Shoop to use dynamic talents like freshman Maleik Gray in hybrid roles where he can technically function as a nickelback or a safety but spend most of his time wreaking havoc in the box.
I lean toward the argument of taking just one linebacker. Not only do I think the LB talent on the roster leans strongly toward the young side, the idea that you just don’t need that many LBs anymore rings true to me. I also think there are more pressing needs on the roster, and every spot is valuable. Hopefully, young players like returnees Quart’e Sapp and Daniel Bituli, along with a handful of freshmen like Shanon Reid and Will Ignont, will perform well enough to make the staff feel good about the stable they have already assembled.
If the Vols are only taking one LB in this class, who should they target?
When it comes to individual players in this class, I’ve been an advocate for a heavy pursuit of Xavier Peters from Ohio. To me, he looks like an elite talent that due to Ohio State filling up at the position (and perhaps his potential academic/off-field issues — attitude, not character per se) is “landable.” However, to date the Vols have not pushed, and he is currently committed to Kentucky. The two LBs remaining on the board at this point are Matthew Flint from Alabama and in-state product Cam Jones from the suburbs of Memphis. By all accounts, the Vols really like both of them and would be willing to take the first one that jumps in the boat.
What’s interesting about these two is that despite being the two players from which Tennessee will likely land its one LB in the class, they are vastly different prospects. While Flint is on the smaller side at around 6’1″, 205 pounds and fits the type of LB who the Vols have recruited a lot of over the last few classes, Jones is a heavier kid and measures in around 6’4″. Jones would easily be the tallest LB on the roster were he to sign with Tennessee. Flint’s game is speed and athleticism – he’s been clocked at sub 4.5 at multiple camps, and he showed out at a Rivals camp this spring with performances in SPARQ-type measurements (high jump, shuttle, etc.) that were comparable to much more highly ranked players at multiple positions.
Cam is no slouch either – watching his film (as an amateur, mind you) to me it is incredibly impressive how a kid his size moves so well side-to-side while at the same time playing a bunch of different positions, from WR to DE to KR to LB. He has the potential to be a monster, for sure. But he’s less experienced as an actual LB than Flint is, so to a degree you’re projecting him at LB more than knowing he can actually play the position.
Flint’s offer list is headlined by both Auburn and Ole Miss, markedly better than Jones, who is choosing between the Vols, Missouri, and Group of Five Memphis State. He also practices and plays against materially better competition than Jones does. Making matters more interesting, Jones is not only an in-state prospect (from the Memphis area that the Vols would love to make more headway in, no less), he’s also a legacy; Cam’s brother Laron Harris played DL for the Vols in the early-mid 2000s. He’s also friends with big time OL prospect Jerome Carvin and would-be DE target/Alabama commit Jordan Davis. So there are some wrinkles in that recruitment that extend beyond the individual kid.
Assuming that a) passing/not waiting any longer on Jones won’t cost you Carvin, b) landing Jones wouldn’t mean you’re all of a sudden landing the aforementioned Davis, and c) you’re not going to go after Peters, I lean toward pushing for Flint. I can’t say enough that I’m not a scout (professional or otherwise), but as mentioned above while you’re projecting Jones to be a big time LB who can help you win championships, Flint is a known commodity at the position with offers from much better programs. Watch him at the Rivals Atlanta Camp – he’s the only LB able to stick with RBs in the 1-on-1 drills, and he does it with both physicality and quickness. He’s got the size/speed combo you’ve been making your prototype in the last few years, so he fits your system to a tee, and he also doesn’t carry the possibility of turning into a “tweener” or simply outgrowing the position like Jones does. Finally, Flint is an early enrollee, which as we’ve seen makes him all the more valuable as a prospect as he’ll be much more likely to be ready to contribute immediately. All that said, Jones could blow up this season at LB and see his offer list explode as schools see him actually perform at the position, so in no way do I think this is an easy call. For the record, I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Vols take both Flint and Jones. They’re both excellent prospects and the numbers have a way of working themselves out. It will be fascinating to see how the coaches approach this now that the summer is over and the season is upon us.