KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — It didn't take long for Tennessee assistant coach Peter Sirmon to prove just why the Volunteers need especially versatile linebackers this season.
The Volunteers linebacker corps was already thin with seniors Nick Reveiz and LaMarcus Thompson graduating and junior Herman Lathers sitting out spring practice to recover from shoulder surgery. Since spring practice began, sophomore John Propst hurt a hamstring, senior Austin Johnson sprained a knee and junior Greg King suffered a mild concussion.
"Even in the spring, you've got to have the versatility to move some guys around, say 'Hey, today you're playing this, tomorrow you're playing something else.' In the spring game, if one guy gets hurt we may have to rotate some guys and one guy may have to be the utility player for all three positions."
Sirmon is trying to make his players more versatile by teaching them the general concepts of the linebacker role rather than forcing them to memorize the specifics of the middle, strongside or weakside linebacker positions.
That should make it easier to switch guys in and out at any given time, especially during Saturday's Orange and White spring game, where the Vols are still likely to be short-handed at the position.
"I want to be able to put my fourth best player in there and not be limited in what position they can play," he said. "I think all of them are similar enough. I think that's why it's important that the terminology that we use makes sense ... instead of being so specific to each position."
Lathers and Johnson are expected to play important roles at linebacker for the Vols come fall. Lathers' experience has earned him a spot after finishing second on the team in 2010 with 75 tackles and logging 2.5 sacks.
Johnson, who played as a backup and on special teams last season, has stepped up as a leaders of the linebackers through the way he's practiced and prepared during the offseason and in spring practice.
"I think he's more comfortable in what we're doing, and he has become more of a leader on and off the field, organizing things with the team, being a guy in the weight room that people look at as a hard worker and in the workouts," defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. "On the field it naturally carries over. I think he's done a great job in the offseason to get to that point, and that's why the guys listen to him and respect him."
But while he and Lathers are sidelined, guys like senior Shane Reveiz — Nick's younger brother — senior Daryl Vereen, sophomore Raiques Crump and junior Nigel Mitchell-Thornton are getting a chance to show what they can do.
Vereen has impressed coaches with his leadership skills, and Shane Reveiz made the most of his opportunity Saturday in Tennessee's second scrimmage, leading the Vols with nine tackles, one tackle for a loss, a fumble recovery and a pass breakup.
"Just keep working — that's the biggest message — just always keep working and never stop and when you get a chance, capitalize," Reveiz said. "It was unfortunate to see Austin and Greg go down, but it really gave me a chance. I really wanted to prove that I can play."
The Vols linebackers are unlikely to question Sirmon's coaching technique. After all, he spent seven seasons in the NFL as a linebacker with the Tennessee Titans.
"I think anytime you've kind of walked in the same shoes as the players, there's a level of understanding," he said. "You're asking them to do things that you know can be done or when things are difficult, you kind of understand the problems. It's easier to relate to them."