Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess
Rico McCoy has heard the chatter.
Two starters are gone from a defense that led the SEC in total defense last season. Their potential replacements are learning a new scheme and have just one career start between them.
McCoy, a two-year starter at weakside linebacker and the most experienced player on Tennessee’s defense, has definitely heard the concerns about linebacker.
He’s just not buying it.
“It is kind of weird to me,” McCoy says. “I know the guys we’re playing with this year, and I know their abilities. All those guys can play ball. It’s just like another year for me. I know those guys are hungry, been waiting for their chance to shine. It’s their time. I’m not worried about it at all.”
That Tennessee’s linebackers are a concern this season is a bit out of the ordinary.
One of the strengths of former defensive coordinator John Chavis was his ability to get consistent production from his linebackers. Just last season, Ellix Wilson led the Vols with 89 tackles (in just 11 games) in his first year as a starter. He replaced Jerod Mayo, who went on to be the NFL’s defensive rookie of the year after being taken in the first round of the 2008 draft by the New England Patriots.
Much of Chavis’ success in finding replacement players, though, stemmed from continuity.
And while Tennessee’s offense has become accustomed to scheme changes with four new coordinators in the last five seasons, the Vols spent spring practice learning a completely new defense for the first time since 1995. It’s a race against the clock that began with 15 practices in the spring, continued over the summer and will ramp up again when fall camp begins next week.
Coach: Lance Thompson
Lettermen Lost (3): SLB - Adam Myers-White, Nevin McKenzie; MLB - Ellix Wilson.
Projected Starters: WLB - Rico McCoy (Sr., 6-1, 220); MLB - Nick Reveiz (Jr., 5-10, 220) or Herman Lathers (R-Fr., 6-1, 213); SLB - LaMarcus Thompson (Jr., 6-1, 221).
Watch For: Savion Frazier and Jerod Askew. Those two currently play behind McCoy at weakside, but either one could be on the move in fall camp.
Key Stat: Last year, McCoy averaged 7.2 tackles a game, which ranked ninth in the SEC. Absent from his statsheet, though, were forced fumbles, recovered fumbles and interceptions.
The Series: Sunday -Quarterbacks; Monday - Defensive backs; Tuesday -Offensive line; Today - Linebackers; Thursday - Special Teams
Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is optimistic, but he’s also realistic when it comes to the Vols’ first season running his scheme.
“We have to start from scratch and get the whole thing going,” he said. “The players are all anxious to do it, but there’s only so much you can do in a short period of time. The first year, we can get all these guys on defense to just know the system like the back of their hand.
“Once you get in the system, it’ll be so much easier the next year. We just have to do as much as we can as quick as we can and hope for the best.”
McCoy has a few reasons for hope, including juniors Savion Frazier and Nick Reveiz.
Frazier, who is listed as McCoy’s backup at weakside, could be a factor at strongside linebacker, where McCoy also worked some this spring. Despite the fact that Frazier hasn’t started a game, McCoy said the 6-foot-2, 221-pound Frazier has plenty of experience.
“He played in every game (last season) and got 20-30 snaps in the Alabama and South Carolina games,” McCoy said. “No stars, but a lot of experience if you actually watch the game film. He’s a guy that’s going to play a lot this year.”
That could also be the case for Reveiz, a former walk-on from Farragut High School who took little time to impress UT’s new coaches this spring.
Reveiz saw significant time backing up Wilson last season at middle linebacker and earned his first career start against Northern Illinois when Wilson was out with a shoulder injury.
Junior LaMarcus Thompson left spring with the inside track at strongside, while redshirt freshman Herman Lathers could push Reveiz in the middle.
The arrival of true freshmen Jerod Askew, Robert Nelson and Greg King could also provide contributors, too.
McCoy has taken Askew under his wing since he arrived on campus earlier this month. Askew will begin his career at weakside.
“I took the role of his big brother,” McCoy said. “We’re getting him caught up. He has a motor. He’s going to work hard. From watching his film, he likes to hit people. I can’t wait to see him in pads.”
Drew Edwards covers University of Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274.