After the departure of upperclassmen Will Ignot and Shannon Reid via the transfer portal, followed by the dismissal of promising Sophomore RB-turned-LB Jeremy Banks – all within the span of the last two weeks – Tennessee now finds itself with a shocking lack of depth at Inside Linebacker. To illustrate the point, starters Daniel Bituli (a senior who by definition won’t be returning next season) and Henry To’oto’to took every single one of the snaps against Georgia this past Saturday night, as little-used backups JJ Peterson (RSFr), Solon Page (RSSo) and Aaron Beasley (True Fr) were deemed to be unready by the staff. As it pertains to the rest of the season, Coach Jeremy Pruitt and Defensive Coordinator Derrick Ansley will have to simultaneously get those three backups up to speed as much as possible in order for them to be able to hold up for even just a few plays a game while also finding some answers from other positions. As for the latter, True Freshman Quarvaris Crouch, who practiced inside during the spring before being moved to OLB/DE this season – with some limited success – is the most likely option. And that could very well be a strong solution both in the near and short term, as Crouch has unlimited potential regardless of where he lines up and frankly is built much more to play ILB than to play on the outside. Peterson is a former borderline 5-star prospect who despite getting off the a rough start still very much has the belief of the coaching staff. Were he to take a step as the season progresses that would be big news both immediately and for the future. Regardless, when it comes to future roster building, the bottom line is that Tennessee is in dire need of LBs in the class of 2020, and ideally will sign multiple prospects who can step in and play right away in 2020.
To that end, the Vols have massively increased their efforts with the three 4-star LBs from Memphis’s Whitehaven HS: Bryson Eason, Martavius French (committed to Arkansas), and Tammarion McDonald (committed to Mississippi State). The trio took their official visits to Tennessee this past weekend for the UGA game and by all accounts the Vols made a major move with each of them. Interestingly, they each have very different body types and theoretically project to different spots on the defense, with Eason more of a pure ILB, French potentially a 3-4 DE, and McDonald (the lighter of the three) as a Nickel LB or even SS. The Vols could use all the talent that all three possess, but it should be noted that landing them doesn’t cure all of what ails the Vols at the LB spot by itself.
Tennessee is also still actively recruiting two longtime LB targets in Len’Neth Whitehead and Noah Sewell, but despite heading into the season as the presumed leader for Whitehead and as strong contender for Sewell, the Vols seem to have faded with both. Whitehead, who took his OV to Tennessee for the season opening debacle against Georgia State, has been trending to South Carolina for the past few weeks after attending their moral victory 24-point loss to Alabama and then MASSIVE win over a Kentucky team whose Quarterback was playing with one arm. He’s taking an OV to Wisconsin this weekend, which could theoretically throw a wrench in his recruitment since they are a) a very, very good program, and b) recruiting him solely as a RB and have quite the history to point to. Assuming however that distance and relative familiarity end of working against the Badgers this will come down to the Vols and the Gamecocks, and if the Vols want to retake the lead here they’ll likely need to get him back to campus before he announces. Whitehead is an incredibly athletic prospect with very good speed to go with plus-size, and despite a general lack of interest from hometown Georgia is a tremendous prospect who would likely get a lot of immediate playing time if he signed with Tennessee. Sewell is a physical marvel who moves like a 225-pound LB despite being closer to 270 pounds. After a very good unofficial visit to Knoxville over the summer the Vols had placed themselves in a position to be in his recruitment to the end along with Oregon, where his brother plays, and Georgia. However, the 5-star perhaps has soured on Tennessee since the season began and now the Vols are just fighting to get an official visit. Right now he appears to be a longshot, but perhaps with a strong rest of the season and persistence from recruiter extraordinaire Brian Niedermeyer Tennessee can keep itself in the mix.
A LB prospect who hasn’t yet been mentioned with Tennessee the #1 JUCO LB in the country in Tyrus Wheat. He’s a Mississippi State commitment from Amite, LA who took an OV to South Carolina and also had an Auburn offer before he committed to the Bulldogs over the summer. To be clear, there is no public indication that there is interest on either side, let alone mutual, but Tennessee will absolutely need immediate help at the position and this would be the ideal situation to add a JUCO player. If the Joe Moorhead to Rutgers come to fruition all bets will be off with Mississippi State’s commitment, so it would behoove Tennessee to at least try to stay on Wheat’s radar should they opportunity to poach present itself.
Finally, an incredibly intriguing option is Ole Miss commitment De’rickey Wright. Wright is a former Alabama commitment from Gadsden who flipped to Ole Miss in June. Featured in a 247Sports article titled “Five Potential Freaks in Alabama’s Class,” he’s listed at 6’4, 220 with a +10-inch wingspan. He’s played all over the field in his high school career, collecting TFLs, sacks, forced fumbles and lots of INTS and touchdowns – 10 and 20, respectively, last season alone. He competed as a DB at a handful of summer combines and more than held his own, showing his functional athleticism. He’s also a high-academic prospect (don’t let the Ole Miss commitment fool you) who has offers from the likes of Duke, Notre Dame, UVA and Vanderbilt. Importantly, he’s been to Knoxville at least three times, including being a visitor for two of Tennessee’s home games this season – returning for the electric atmosphere this past weekend vs. UGA despite being in the house for the Georgia State catastrophe. Ole Miss is recruiting him as a Safety, and apparently the Vols like him on offense – sort of recruiting him like they were with Dee Beckwith as a Jumbo Pass-catcher. But, very notably, Alabama was recruiting him as a LB, projecting that upon getting into a bigtime S&C program he’d outgrow the defensive backfield. Like the Whitehaven prospects, though, Wright is simply a guy with the kind of athleticism and measurables – and production to go with it – that Tennessee needs more of even if he either a) isn’t ready to contribute at LB immediately or b) ends up at a different position. He’s a guy who, especially with his very clear interest in the Vols, the staff should be going all-in for.
Tennessee has clear needs at just about every position on the roster. There simply isn’t enough talent or depth necessary to compete. However, at ILB in particular the need is not just for quality but also for quantity. The Vols are making moves to address that to a certain degree with the potential of Crouch from OLB to ILB as well as the new laser focus on the Whitehaven kids. However, they likely need more than just them, and fortunately there are still options out there.