Tommy Thigpen: Linebackers
Bio: New linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen knows what it’s like to coach in the SEC. He knows what it’s like to win an SEC and BCS national championship as well.
He was part of the Auburn staff that did just that in 2010. Thigpen comes to UT after a four-year stint with the Tigers that ended in a disappointing 2012 campaign but also yielded a lot of success – including the ring in 2010.
The former North Carolina linebacker also saw success during his playing career. He was an All-ACC selection and a fifth-round pick of the New York Giants in 1993. He spent time with them along with the Barcelona Dragons in the World League from 1995-96.
He transitioned into coaching in 1998 as a graduate assistant with the Tar Heels. He had stints as a defensive assistant at Tennessee State, Bowling Green and Illinois before returning to UNC in 2007 as a full-time linebackers coach. He stayed there until 2008 before heading to Auburn.
He’s listed as the cornerbacks coach for UT, but defensive coordinator John Jancek said that the current plan is that Thigpen will coach linebackers in 2013.
What he has to work with: Thigpen will have two proven veterans in rising juniors A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt. Johnson led the SEC in tackles (138) in 2012. Maggitt will be coming off ACL surgery but has been a reliable starter the last two seasons when healthy.
The challenge will be finding another quality starter and some depth behind them. Departing senior Herman Lathers battled many injuries during his time in Knoxville, but was a steadying force at linebacker.
An emerging core of young linebackers such as Christian Harris, Kenny Bynum and LaTroy Lewis will be counted on to step up in 2012 after all have dealt with a major injury in their career. Rising seniors Channing Fugate, John Propst, Dontavis Sapp and Raiques Crump will have one more chance to make an impact. Ooltewah native Jacques Smith played linebacker in the 3-4 but is likely to transition back to defensive end in the new defense.
Recruiting is essential at this spot. If Johnson were to go pro after next year, the Vols could be left with as few as five scholarship linebackers on the roster in 2014. Junior college linebacker De’Vondre Campbell committed to the former staff but has backed off his pledge and is expected to end up at Texas. Linebacker Corey Vereen, who is enrolling in January, is the only current commitment at the position.
What they’ve said:
• "Every single week, it is the game of the week. Even now with Vanderbilt up, you are playing the Vanderbilts, you are playing the South Carolinas, you are playing the Floridas, you are playing the Georgias; there is no down game. So every week you have to put your 'A' game on. You go out to practice with your construction hat on and be ready to go,” Thigpen said of coaching in the SEC.
• "I don't think there is such a thing as a quick fix in this conference. Our goal is to get better and to see the improvement every single week. We aren't looking to jump from whatever we were ranked last year to No. 1 or No. 2, but what we need to make sure that happens is that there is a steady improvement every single week and every day they come to work,” Thigpen on the challenge of improving UT’s defense.
• Chosen one of Rivals.com’s Top 25 recruiters in 2007.
• Has coached or played in six bowl games, including coaching in Auburn’s 22-19 win over Oregon in the BCS national championship game at the end of the 2010 season.
Assessing the hire: This is one of new coach Butch Jones’ best hires to his staff. He needed assistants that not only had been in the SEC but knew the recruiting landscape. Thigpen matches that description.
He understands college football from a playing and coaching perspective and knows secondary coach Willie Martinez from working with him at Auburn last year. He won’t be as familiar with the rest of the staff, but he should blend in quickly.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS