KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – As No. 12/10 Tennessee continues to prepare for its season opener against Virginia four days from now in Nashville, two of the position groups that have arguably improved the most from last season and will be relied upon heavily are the running backs and linebackers.
Both units are anchored by experienced returners and also added exciting newcomers to the mix that should bolster the offense and defense as a whole.
“Right now, I love the depth. It’s the first time since I’ve been here that we have multiple backs that we have a lot of trust in as an offensive staff,” running backs coach Jerry Mack said following Tuesday’s practice. “You see with Jaylen Wright and Jabari (Small) that those guys have been staples in our offense the past few years. Dylan Sampson continues to grow and show that he can be a playmaker in this offense.
“I’m really impressed with the younger guys, like the Cameron Seldon’s of the world and the Khalifa Keith’s. They’ve done a really good job of coming in here in the summer and spring time, learning and getting adapted to what we are trying to do offensively. Right now, the depth is in an extremely good place.”
For linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary, it’s extremely important to have his players feeling fresh late in games. The improved depth and talent within the linebacker room this season will be key in accomplishing that goal.
“Our goal is for every play that those guys are out there, and I think that this is defensive wide, is we want those guys to give 100 percent effort and we want them to empty their tank,” Jean-Mary said. “We want those guys to give everything that they have, empty their tank, and play a hundred miles an hour knowing that they could come back to the sideline, rest, and get a chance to go back. I feel like for us, we always want to be the fastest and freshest team going into the fourth quarter. I think the only way you can do that is if you get those guys the rest that they need.”
With the veteran duo of Aaron Beasley and Keenan Pili leading the way and talented youngsters such as Elijah Herring, Kalib Perry, Arion Carter, Jeremiah Telander and Jalen Smith providing formidable depth, UT’s linebacker group is poised to be among the best in the SEC.
Something both coaches acknowledged was the fact that Virginia is a formidable opponent to open the season with and that the Cavaliers are much better than their 2022 record may have indicated.
“Really impressed with how hard those guys play,” Mack said. “One thing about the University of Virginia which you can tell, is they were in a lot of games last year. You see the record and people just assume that they were not a very good football team, but there were spots and there were times where they showed flashes, especially in their front defensively.
“They got really good defensive ends that do a good job pressing the pocket … At the second level, at the linebacker position, those guys move around, they fly around. We’re going to see some different bodies probably than we saw on film in some certain spots, but I think the athletic ability is still there.”
Jean-Mary noted that having to prepare for new players and adjustments in scheme that weren’t on film from last season would also be a factor in Saturday’s opener.
“It is always a challenge, because they’re so different from what we face on offense in a day-to-day period,” Jean-Mary said. “Obviously, they have the new pieces, a new quarterback. I thought the young man they had last year was dynamic as a thrower and a runner. The Muskett kid (Tony Muskett) that they named a starter that transferred from Monmouth, when you watch his film, he has a lot of the same qualities. He’s very, very athletic. Throws a really, really nice deep ball and seems to have that savvy and that poise of a really good quarterback. So, we know we have our challenges there … They are going to be a challenge to defend.”
The Big Orange open the 2023 season against the Cavaliers on Saturday afternoon at 11 a.m. CT on ABC at Nissan Stadium. The game is being presented by Nissan.