Here’s the checklist for those wishing to play linebacker at Tennessee:
- Play with great effort.
- Be physical.
- Know your stuff.
So far so good on the first two directives, said linebackers coach Lance Thompson following practice Tuesday. It’s No. 3 that could still use some work.
“Right now we’re doing a lot of instillation so the guys are kind of swimming,” Thompson said. “… We’ve got one guy that’s played ‘Game Time’ ball in the SEC where it mattered.
“We’ve got a lot of wide eyes right now.”
That one guy Thompson spoke of is Rico McCoy, the senior who has started 27 games for the Vols. McCoy is UT’s leading returning tackler with 87 takedowns last year — good for second on the team in 2008.
McCoy was a solid weakside linebacker last season. Most believed his athletic ability best suited him to play that position again in 2009. Not UT’s new coaching staff.
In one of few position moves made before spring practice began, McCoy was switched to strongside linebacker in hopes of capitalizing on his athletic ability — both in pass coverage and as a pass rusher.
McCoy has played all three linebacker positions at UT. If there is ever a time to experiment with UT’s lone, known linebacker commodity, it is now.
“He’s played inside so he can always go back and play inside,” Thompson said. “We’re going to see what he can learn outside so we have some versatility there. If he’s got some flexibility, that helps us.”
McCoy wasn’t jumping for joy when he was told of the change. However, Thompson said he’s been pleased with McCoy’s acceptance.
Now, McCoy seems energized by the switch as his confidence grows during every practice.
“I’m picking it up on the fly,” the 6-foot-1, 221-pound McCoy said. “I’m getting the gist of it. They’re doing a great job coaching me, keeping it simple.
“Having that knowledge (of) playing all three positions, you’re ready for whatever comes your way.”
UT’s new coaching staff promised McCoy he’d have better opportunities to rush the passer when he made the move to strongside. Often times they said, McCoy would be matched up on running backs — the quarterback’s last line of defense and usually a favorable matchup for any linebacker.
McCoy is seeing that promise come to fruition this spring as he and his teammates better comprehend UT’s new defensive scheme.
“I’m looking forward to that this season, getting a lot of pass rushing one-on-one with the fullback or the tailback,” McCoy said. “That is one thing that has changed with my position. I’m going to try to take advantage of that this year and get me a couple of sacks this year.”
As UT’s coaches try to find McCoy’s best position, they’re also trying to find two other linebackers to start alongside him.
Nick Reveiz has seen plenty of first team snaps during spring practice. The junior played in all 12 games last season, starting one.
The former Farragut High School standout may have been an unquestioned starter had the Vols not changed coaches. A former walk-on, Reveiz had proved himself to UT’s old staff, especially on the practice field.
Now, Reveiz must do the same with the new staff.
So far, so good.
“I think Nick had done an outstanding job with us,” Thompson said. “He’s a very intelligent guy. He’s a very intense guy. He’s probably our most physical linebacker. I’ve been very pleased with Nick.”
Thompson said he has no issues with Reveiz’s talent — except for one small one, his height. Reveiz is listed at a generous 5-10, but is one of the strongest players on the team.
“We’ve seen Zach Thomases (and) Sam Mills,” Thompson said, referring to short, successful linebackers in the NFL. “The deal is ‘Execute the defense.’ To this point, he’s done a pretty good job of that.”
Redshirt freshman Herman Lathers also has a shot at middle linebacker.
“We’ve got to get him more into the physical part of the game and the intensity part of the game,” Thompson said.
That’s not a problem for LaMarcus Thompson at weakside linebacker. The junior has seen plenty of time with the first team.
“He can fly around and he can hit guys,” McCoy said.
Yet it will take more from LaMarcus Thompson to appease his coach.
“Will (weakside linebacker) has got to be a playmaker for us,” coach Thompson said of LaMarcus Thompson. “I want to see him in some scrimmage situations.
“The really good linebackers nowadays have that sixth sense, that cat sense where their instincts take over. That’s what I want to see out of these young guys.”
The Vols have other options at linebacker with sophomores Daryl Vereen and Josh Hawkins and junior Savion Frazier. UT could also utilize junior Gerald Williams if he doesn’t eventually find a more permanent home at defensive end.
If UT’s coaches can’t find a duo to play alongside McCoy by the end of spring practice, there is help coming. The Vols signed four linebackers for the 2009 signing class: Jerod Askew, Greg King, Nigel Mitchell-Thornton and Robert Nelson.