A deeper unit coupled with a desire to play more three linebacker sets, the Tennessee defense is experimenting with new looks and new personnel this spring. Linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen understands the concepts, but also understands that football is still trending toward less linebackers and more defensive backs.
"You don't see them anymore," Thigpen said. "That's the wave of football now. It's called the specialized sets with 11 personnel or 10 personnel by putting an extra receiver on the field and to take a big guy off the field. They are trying to get a mismatch on the field and put an extra linebacker on the wideout. That's what people want, so you go into the skill sets of playing nickel. In certain circumstances you are able to get three linebackers providing they put two backs in the backfield."
And thanks to that personnel grouping, Tennessee's linebackers who are on the field have to be willing to make plays in pass coverage. It's something they work on every day, and Thigpen is pleased with the progress.
"I have quite a few of them," Thigpen said. "I'd have thought that (Daniel) Bituli would have struggled, but he is doing great. Because we do it so much, guys are actually pretty natural with it. They have been playing man, corner flats and vertical hook. They are doing all the footwork that I thought guys would struggle with. I'm actually seeing older guys talk to them about it. (Kirkland) is the most natural and has done it the most."
And all of that equals an attempt to find the top two linebackers to put on the field when Tennessee does got with a 4-2-5 defensive alignment.
"It could possible be the two weakside backers," Thigpen said. "Not just the two middle backers. You want guys able to play in space. What we are looking for is get best two linebackers. The best two players that can help us win. Not only the best two players, but when you are playing so many hurry up teams, your second string guys are just as important. Having that depth and be able to play at a high level of football."
Citing several young players across the board who have impressed him this spring, Thigpen is much more at ease. Last fall was stressful with all the injuries and devastation to his unit, forcing several players into action who weren't necessarily ready. But it's helped the unit grow.
"Absolutely," Thigpen said. "When Maybin and DK (Kirkland) went down, Cortez had some playing experience, but not that much playing experience. And Jumper was a new kid on the block that got experience. You can't ever underestimate guys getting experience and playing in front of that 102,000. I have a lot of experience in the room as far as knowing what to do and knowing their responsibilities and gap assignments. Being able help those young guys and make sure those young guys know those roles and take it seriously."
Thigpen had high praise for Cortez McDowell, Daniel Bituli, Austin Smith and Darrin Kirkland Jr on Tuesday afternoon. Smith ballooned up to 260 pounds after arriving and moved to defensive end. Back down in the 230s, the Georgia native is playing like his old self, making stops sideline to sideline.
"He's 239 pounds," Thigpen said. "When he first got here, he got to 260 loving food. He loved the food part of it and got moved to defensive end. He's dropped the weight and is at 230 and is playing really well for a linebacker."