One of the biggest problems facing the Tennessee Vols when Jeremy Pruitt arrived in late 2017 was a noticeable lack of depth.
Former Vols head coach Butch Jones recruited fairly well during his time in Knoxville (even his 2017 class, when things started falling apart, was ranked No. 17 in the nation), but injuries and transfers left the program with a depleted roster by the time a coaching change was made.
Pruitt and his staff have worked hard to improve Tennessee’s depth via recruiting/transfers. And while the depth can still improve, it’s much better than it was a few years ago.
But there’s one position where depth is clearly still an issue.
Inside linebacker — specifically the insider linebacker making the defensive calls.
There were plenty of reasons the Vols lost their first two games of the 2019 season (Georgia State and BYU). The quarterback play certainly could’ve been better. But I’m convinced the biggest reason Tennessee lost those games was the absence of linebacker Daniel Bituli, who served as the quarterback of the Vols’ defense last season.
Without Bituli on the field, the defense was in total disarray at times.
If you thought that alignment was silly, just watch what happened next. pic.twitter.com/DeLeosanMZ
— David Ubben (@davidubben) September 1, 2019
What a mess.
When Bituli returned in week three, the Vols defense instantly improved. Unfortunately for Tennessee, Bituli is off to the NFL after exhausting his eligibility. But fortunately for the Vols, rising sophomore Henry To’o To’o looks more than capable of handling defensive playcalling duties. He may even be an upgrade over Bituli (that’s no slight to Bituli, To’o To’o is just that good).
But what if To’o To’o is forced to miss some time?
It’s possible Tennessee would be in the same situation they were in at the beginning of last season.
The depth behind To’o To’o isn’t great. There’s redshirt sophomore JJ Peterson, who has yet to live up to the signing day hype that accompanied his signature in early 2018. Solon Page and Aaron Beasley are options at inside linebacker, though they don’t have experience making defensive calls. Quavarius Crouch will likely play at inside linebacker this season as well (he’s also played on the outside), but it’s unclear if he’d be an option to handle playcalling duties.
True freshman Martavius French, a four-star linebacker from Memphis, could be the Vols’ best option behind To’o To’o. French is incredibly smart and has film study habits similar to To’o To’o. 247Sports pointed out this week that Tennessee’s coaches view French as a potential successor to To’o To’o.
Of course, the problem is that French has no experience. If something happens to To’o To’o early in the season, it’s doubtful that French would be ready to asume those responsibilities.
Essentially, it appears that UT will be in a tough spot if To’o To’o isn’t available for any reason.
Add the lack of depth to the fact that that Tennessee has a new linebackers coach in 2020 (Brian Niedermeyer slid over to linebackers from tight ends) and this is the one position on the field that could cause the Vols the most issues this upcoming season.
Ultimately, I have faith that Pruitt, Niedermeyer and defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley will figure it out. But it could be a rough go at times.
Tennessee needs To’o To’o to stay healthy. Otherwise, it could be an adventure on defense.
Featured image via Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports