KNOXVILLE – Those who projected a two-deep lineup for Tennessee’s defense this spring probably had at least one error.
The same goes for anybody guessing who might be on UT’s kickoff return team at this point.
It’s not often that a walk-on comes in and gets those types of opportunities immediately. But that’s been the case this spring for former Baylor standout and Chattanooga-area native linebacker Colton Jumper, who enrolled at UT for the spring semester and is now making the most of his chance.
“We were recruiting him [in 2012] when he was at [Baylor] and he came up on a visit then and we were talking about a preferred walk-on spot,” said Tennessee linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen. “Then he came back and said he was going to stay in [prep] school another year and he thought he was going to get recruited bigger. He went to school at the Hun School up in New Jersey and then he had the Naval Academy deal, but he still thought he could play in the SEC.”
That deal referenced by Thigpen was the diagnosis of the kidney disease membranous nephropathy that kept Jumper from the opportunity to enroll at Navy last summer after his year in prep school.
It wasn’t a diagnosis that would end his football career, but it was enough to disqualify him from playing at a service academy.
Jumper, who, per UT policy hasn’t been made available to speak to the media this spring, returned to Chattanooga to weigh his options. He looked at UTC and others before ultimately decided to opt for a preferred walk-on spot at UT, a place where he could enroll early and begin competing on a team that is thin at linebacker.
“He had some offers, but he wanted to come here and he thought he had a good chance of playing,” Thigpen said. “And we told him, you know you’ll be in the two deep in the spring and you can earn some playing time. So you know he’s a big, long, athletic kid – still learning – but he asks a lot of really good questions and he's making a lot of young mistakes but very pleased with where he’s at.”
"Colton, it's all new for him,” added defensive coordinator John Jancek. “He's swimming. He's hit the wall. He's just scratching and clawing right now, but I love his attitude. He's engaged and he asks questions, so we'll just keep grinding with him."
And while the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Jumper has earned praise for his work this spring, perhaps the best thing he has going for him at the moment is Tennessee’s lack of depth at linebacker. An already thin unit has seen Curt Maggitt and Jakob Johnson both get work at defensive end.
That leaves A.J. Johnson as the only experienced returning scholarship linebacker. Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who saw some action in 2013, has settled in as a starter this spring. The other scholarship linebackers – Kenny Bynum, Justin King and Neiko Creamer – are all relatively untested.
And though UT will bring in Dillon Bates, Chris Weatherd and Gavin Bryant over the summer, Thigpen thinks Jumper has a good chance to see the field as soon as next year in some capacity.
“I think he’ll stay up there,” Thigpen said. “He’s found a role on this football team on special teams and right now he’s got a whole semester jump on guys coming in. We moved some guys around at linebacker and the depth is not that much, so we’re going to get three linebackers in this summer, but, still, the numbers are right for the young man.”
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga