KNOXVILLE – Tennessee opens spring practice on Saturday. It will be the first glimpse of coach Butch Jones’ initial UT squad and several positions will be up for grabs, starting in the first practice.
Nooga.com will preview each position group leading up to the first practice on March 9.
Gone: Herman Lathers (graduation)
Returning: Dontavis Sapp (SR); John Propst (SR); Channing Fugate (SR); Raiques Crump (SR); Greg King (SR); A.J. Johnson (JR); Curt Maggitt (JR); Christian Harris (SO); LaTroy Lewis (RS FR); Kenny Bynum (RS FR)
Early enrollees: Corey Vereen (3-star)
Arriving in summer: None
Key injuries: Maggitt is coming off a torn ACL he suffered in the 2012 season.
Outlook: The 2013 group of linebackers is a mixture of proven veterans, developing youngsters coming off of injuries and veterans who will have one more shot to make an impact.
The proven veterans consist of A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt, both of whom have started the last two seasons and have been among the best young defenders in the SEC. Johnson led the SEC in total tackles last year (138) and is considered one of the best in-the-box linebackers in the league. Maggitt is a more versatile outside linebacker who can stop the pass, the run and rush the passer. He’ll be limited this spring with his ACL injury, but that shouldn’t put his spot in jeopardy.
Having two spots locked down is a good start, but finding a third starter and some overall depth could be tricky. Five seniors – Channing Fugate, Raiques Crump, Dontavis Sapp, Greg King and John Propst – will all have one more chance at major playing time after being relegated to mostly special teams and reserve work this far in their careers.
There is some young talent on the roster, but it’s a group that has been hit hard by injuries. Kenny Bynum and LaTroy Lewis both took a redshirt last season after dealing with early-season injuries. The freshman duo looked promising in practice early on, both earning looks with the second team defense.
Redshirt sophomore Christian Harris finally saw action in the middle of 2012 after redshirting in 2011 and missing the first part of last season with a torn ACL from the prior spring. True freshman Corey Vereen was the only linebacker signed in the 2013 class. He’ll go through spring practice after enrolling in January.
Quotable: Linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen on Vereen:
"Corey is an intense and relentless individual. He spent his high school career rushing the passer off the edge. Corey is extremely intelligent and will bring a lot to our program."
By the numbers:
• Johnson: 24 games (22 starts) 218 tackles, 1 sack, 13 TFLs
• Maggitt: 20 games (17 starts) 86 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 10.5 TFLs
• Sapp: 35 games (2 starts), 42 tackles, 1 sack, 3.5 TFLs
• Crump: 33 games, 23 tackles, 1 FF
• Fugate: 37 games (25 were at fullback), 19 tackles, 0.5 TFL
• Propst: 32 games, 21 tackles, 2 TFLs
• King: 15 games, 32 tackles, 2 TFLs
• Harris: 10 games
Projected initial spring depth chart: With Maggitt recovering from injury, this unit is about as open as any other on the roster this spring. Johnson will hold down one spot, but beyond that, it’ll be open competition. Fugate, Sapp, Harris, Lewis, Bynum and Vereen are the players to really watch. Any or all of them could end up playing a big role in 2013.
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga