Tennessee's linebackers were one of the highlights in spring practice, at least the starters were according to head coach Derek Dooley. Dooley has stated that his starting linebackers are as good as anyone in the SEC. The concern with the linebacker group is the uncertainty when it comes to depth at the position and obviously the ability to keep Herman Lathers healthy. We continue our post-spring breakdown with a closer look at the playmaker position in Sal Sunseri's defense - the linebackers.
Jacques Smith - At 6-2, 245 pounds, Smith is physically better built to be a linebacker than a hand in the ground defensive end. It's simply a better fit for him and that showed in spring practice. Smith being in open space is better than in close range with an offensive tackle where he's trying to get off the block on a pass rush. Defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri said he was pleased with the development of Smith through 15 practices. Smith's challenge this summer is to continue to grasp and master a defensive scheme that Smith admits is complicated.
Willie Bohannon - The first time Bohannon met with Sunseri, the defensive coordinator told the then-defensive end, "welcome to linebacker." At 6-2, 250, Bohannon is more physically suited to be an OLB than a defensive end. Bohannon's adjustment in the spring to playing in space went OK, but was certainly not without some struggles. However, it went well enough for Bohannon to leave spring bracketed as the starter with Smith at the Jack linebacker position. He actually played both Jack linebacker as well as the SAM linebacker position in spring. This summer, Bohannon must learn the scheme better and physically he needs to improve his agility to play in open space.
Herman Lathers - Hands down the best story of spring practice. Everyone wondered at the start of spring if he could even make it through practice. Lathers did more than make it through. He left spring practice all smiles and as the starter at middle linebacker. Lathers is a leader and guys seem to rally around him. Even though he had 15 good practices, Lathers is still knocking off some rust. But athletically he makes plays and he helps make the starting linebacker group a unit that Dooley and the coaches are extremely excited about. Lathers was a huge lift to the linebacker position in the spring. This summer Lathers must continue to improve physically as he returns from the injury and he like all the linebackers must get a better handle on Sunseri's scheme.
A.J. Johnson - If anyone is made to play linebacker it's the sophomore from Georgia. Regardless of the scheme and even with some speed and quickness limitations, Johnson just makes plays and plays and more plays. His highlight of the spring was an open-field tackle of Devrin Young. Johnson is just so instinctive that a new scheme doesn't really affective him. He just chases the ball well and seems to always make the first right step. Johnson was leaner and stronger in the spring at 245 pounds. His goal this summer is try and improve on his quickness and agility.
Curt Maggitt - The Florida native is the most versatile linebacker on the roster. Maggitt can play inside or outside. The staff wants to play him outside, but worked him inside early in spring due to the uncertainty of Lathers at inside linebacker. Maggitt was limited contact wise after off-season surgery so he still has a lot of learning to do in the scheme. A year ago, Maggitt was expected to be a 3rd down pass rush specialists as a defensive end, but injuries to Maggitt and other linebackers limited that role. As the summer approaches, Maggitt needs to physically get stronger and add some weight. One of the biggest concerns with Maggitt is holding his weight. Last year, Maggitt dropped pounds throughout the season and admits he has a hard time holding weight for years during the season.
Raiques Crump - The junior from Alabama had a solid start to spring practice, but didn't finish as well as he or anyone had hoped. Crump however did show that he can be a quality back up at the SAM linebacker position. The concern with Crump is his size or his lack of it. At 6-1, 220 pounds Crump is not the prototypical linebacker for the 3-4. The challenge for Crump is to get stronger and bigger so that he can be more durable and physical in Sunseri's system.
Dontavis Sapp - Sapp's profile is very similar to the Crump's and that's what the two of the are battling for the back up role at the sam linebacker position. Much like Crump the concern is can he be physical enough and durable in Sunseri's system to handle the rigors of the SEC. Sapp must get stronger and try to add some size if his role is going to be bigger than special teams.
Channing Fugate - Talk about a learning curve, Fugate had a huge one in the spring as the junior made the switch from fullback to linebacker. Fugate lost a large amount of weight over the winter after asking to be moved from offense to defense. Fugate's spring went well in terms of adjusting to defense and learning a different mentality. Where Fugate factors in on defense in the linebacking group remains to be seen. He's still trying to manage the learning curve. Fugate needs to mentally get a better grasp of the defense and try to improve his instincts at the position. Spring went well for Fugate, but the move he is trying to make at this point in his career is not an easy one.
John Propst - Propst did little in terms of making a move this spring. After playing as a freshman, Propst played a very limited number of defensive snaps as a sophomore. At 6-0, 225 pounds, Propst is light to be an inside linebacker and doesn't have the speed to play outside. One of the knocks on Propst a year ago was his commitment to the game. It was something some in the program questioned. In order to try and be a factor on the linebacker depth chart, Propst needs to add some strength and weight. But he also needs to improve his quickness.