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VOL. 40 | NO. 33 | Friday, August 12, 2016

Clarksville's Reeves-Maybin confident in himself, Vol teammates

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Tennessee linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin was one of three Vols to request NFL Draft evaluations last year before deciding to return to school. The others were cornerback Cameron Sutton and running back Alvin Kamara.

-- Hayley Pennesi /Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

Clarksville’s Jalen Reeves-Maybin is in full football mode as he prepares for his senior season at Tennessee.

After choosing not to enter the 2016 NFL Draft, Reeves-Maybin graduated in May after three years and is focused on helping UT win an SEC championship and improving his stock in next year’s draft. He’s also taking a few graduate courses, nothing too taxing.

He’s not alone. Cornerback Cameron Sutton and tailback Alvin Kamara also requested an NFL Draft evaluation last winter, then decided to return to Tennessee.

“When I decided to come back, I knew this was a 12-month investment,” Reeves-Maybin says. “We kind of joked about it. We called it a “Hard 12” when we decided to come back, so all my mind’s into football.

“Camp doesn’t bother me at all. Practice doesn’t bother me. Meetings don’t bother me because I know it’s an investment in myself and an investment in my teammates, so with my experience and things like that, it doesn’t really phase me as much any more.”

His shoulder might be the only thing phasing Reeves-Maybin in fall camp. He missed most of spring practices due to a shoulder injury and spent the first week of fall practices wearing a non-contact green jersey.

Don’t look for Reeves-Maybin to do a lot of hitting before the Sept. 1 opener against Appalachian State at Neyland Stadium. UT’s coaches know what he can do.

“My health, I feel good,” he adds. “I’m progressing like I should be and I feel comfortable out there. I miss being in no contact, but I’m not worried about anything happening to me right now. I’m just going to keep progressing to it.”

UT’s defense is one reason the Vols are favored to win the SEC East and play in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 3 in Atlanta.

Reeves-Maybin and Sutton are two of the eight returning starters from the 2015 defense. Sutton’s focus is on the team first, and then his NFL career.

“I can’t really just concern myself with myself,” Sutton explains. “I also have to invest in everybody around me, because without them it’s not really an investment in myself. They play a big part in the things I do on the field or my days in life, so I’m invested in them as well.”

Reeves-Maybin came to UT as a four-star linebacker out of Clarksville Northeast High and spent his freshman year in 2013 mostly on special teams. In 2014, he started all 13 games and tied for the team-high in tackles (101).

Last year, Reeves-Maybin led the Vols in tackles (105). He had 21 in the loss to Oklahoma and 11 against FBS national champion Alabama.

Reeves-Maybin says the feeling in camp is one of confidence.

“I think the maturity level is up,” he points out. “I think we all knew what to expect of each other, how to work, how to hold each other to the standards we’ve created here.

“This might have been the smoothest year as far as just the offseason and transitioning to camp and all that just because all the guys here have been through it. I think the older guys have done a great job of bringing the young guys along and keeping the freshmen involved and teaching them the standards and expectations.”

The Vols mostly will employ an aggressive 4-2-5 defense with four linemen (two ends, two tackles), two linebackers, and five defensive backs (two cornerbacks, two safeties, one nickel back), and also use a 4-3-4 defense with three linebackers and four defensive backs.

Here’s a look at Tennessee’s defense under first-year coordinator Bob Shoop, who previous held the same position at Penn State and Vanderbilt, as the Vols near the end of the second week of fall camp.

Defensive line

Tennessee’s biggest strength defensively is at the end position, and it starts with Derek Barnett (6-3, 265 pounds), a junior from Brentwood Academy in Nashville.

Barnett has 20 career sacks – 10 in each in his first two seasons – and needs 13 more to surpass Reggie White (1980-83) as Tennessee’s career sacks leader. Barnett was a freshman All-American by the Football Writers Association of America and Sporting News in 2014, and last season was on the All-SEC second team as selected by the league’s coaches and Associated Press.

“He’s the heart and soul of the group on defense,” Shoop says. “He says ‘Jump,’ the guys say ‘How high?’ He says ‘Run,’ they say ‘How fast?’ He’s that type of leader.”

Senior Corey Vereen (6-2, 249) returns as the starter at the other end and came on strong after Curt Maggitt’s season ending injury last year. Vereen played in all 13 games with seven starts and had 9.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, and the team-high eight quarterback hurries. In the last six games, he had 24 tackles and eight tackles for loss. Vereen started 11 games and played in all 13 at end in 2014.

“I think by the end of the year people will be talking about (Vereen) nationwide,” Shoop adds.

Barnett and Vereen missed spring practices while recovering from injuries but are full go in fall camp. They have plenty of competition behind them.

“At the end position, it’s three deep, which is legit,” Shoop says.

Senior LaTroy Lewis (6-4, 256) worked at end with Vereen last season, started five games, and played in all 13.

Sophomore Kyle Phillips (6-4, 259) of Nashville Hillsboro High was having a solid freshman season until he suffered a shoulder injury in the ninth game against South Carolina and missed the rest of the year. He’s back and should be in the rotation.

Also back at end is junior Dimarya Mixon (6-4, 260), who was Barnett’s backup last year. He played in all 13 games and had seven tackles.

Other ends are redshirt freshman Darrell Taylor (6-4, 240) and sophomore Austin Smith (6-3, 250). Smith played in all 13 games last year and had three tackles. He was a linebacker at Buford (Georgia) High and is bulked up to play end for the Vols.

Tennessee’s x-factor on the defensive line is sophomore Jonathan Kongbo (6-6, 270), rated the nation’s No. 1 junior-college recruit out of Arizona Western College. A consensus five-star prospect, Kongbo can be used as an end or inside at tackle due to his frame and athleticism.

“He’s learning to be a D-1 football player, but he’s got the size and skill set to be a real good football player,” Shoop says of Kongbo.

Look for Kongbo to be an impact player – whether it’s as a pass rusher at end or inside.

Tennessee defensive lineman Kendal Vickers is entering his third season with the Vols and his second season as a starter. He started all 13 games in the interior line and finished with 20 tackles.

-- Andrew Bruckse /Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

At tackle, the Vols must replace departed senior Owen Williams (6-2, 295), who started all but one game in 2015 and finished with 35 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and a sack. He had 27 tackles in the last six games.

Third-year junior Kendal Vickers (6-3, 295) started all 13 games at inside spot last year and finished with 20 tackles. It was his first year as a starter.

Tennessee’s interior would get a huge boost if sophomore Shy Tuttle (6-2, 311) is able to return from a broken fibula and ankle injury sustained last Oct. 10 in the win over Georgia. Tuttle, who had 10 tackles in the first six games, could be questionable for the opener.

“Getting Shy Tuttle back is going to be very, very important,” UT coach Butch Jones said when fall camp started Aug. 1.

When Tuttle got hurt, the Vols turned to now-sophomore Kahlil McKenzie (6-3, 325), who showed up at this fall camp nine pounds lighter than his listed weight and way lighter than last year’s camp. He played in all 13 games and had 14 tackles including four in the Outback Bowl victory over Northwestern.

“Kahlil has lost the weight,” Shoop explains. “We challenged him to do that. He’s as we expected.”

Fourth-year junior Danny O’Brien (6-2, 301) played in 11 games with one start last year and finished with 14 tackles, two sacks and three tackles for loss. He started 12 games as a sophomore and had 23 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss, and played in 12 games as a redshirt freshman in 2013.

Sophomore Quay Picou (6-1, 277) played in five games last season as a true freshman. Redshirt freshman Andrew Butcher (6-2, 275) will look to get in the D-line rotation.

Defensive tackle Alexis Johnson remains indefinitely suspended after being arrested in February on charges of aggravated assault and false imprisonment after an incident with a woman. He’s a first-year transfer from Fort Scott (Kansas) Community College.

Linebacker

There’s no doubt about the Vols two starters in the two-linebacker set with Reeves-Maybin at one and sophomore Darrin Kirkland Jr. (6-1, 230) at the other.

Kirkland Jr., a four-star recruit out of Lawrence Central High in Indianapolis, played in all 13 games last year and started 10 and was fourth on the team in tackles (66). He had 6.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, an interception and five quarterback hurries. Kirkland Jr. had six tackles and a sack in the Outback Bowl.

“Kirkland and Maybin have set the pace,” Shoop notes. “Their pursuit to the ball from sideline to sideline has been impressive. I thought they ran to the ball well.”

There is ample competition for the positions as backups – and for the third No. 1 linebacker spot.

Junior Colton Jumper (6-2, 224) started three games last year but was eventually beat out by Kirkland Jr., the former Chattanooga Baylor standout finished with 10 tackles.

Fifth-year senior Kenny Bynum (6-1, 235) started two games at linebacker, played in all 13 games, and had 11 tackles.

Sophomore Cortez McDowell (6-0, 235) and redshirt freshman Quart’e Sapp (6-2, 220) are behind Reeves-Maybin.

Evan Berry, who led the nation in kickoff return average and returned three for touchdowns last season as a freshman, is competing for a spot in the rotation at safety.

-- Craig Bisacre /Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

“We’ve got competition at linebacker,” Reeves-Maybin says. “There’s only two of them, only two of them on the field, so it’s hard to get out there. It’s a great problem to have. I know if one of us goes down, I don’t have a problem with the backups coming in and stepping up and us depending on them.”

Other linebackers are freshman Daniel Bituli (6-3, 235) of Nashville Christian School, third-year sophomores Dillon Bates (6-3, 220) and Gavin Bryant (6-0, 238), and junior Elliott Berry (5-11, 222).

Secondary

It’s an open competition for the several spots in the secondary – except for Sutton having locked down one of the cornerback jobs.

Juniors Justin Martin (6-1, 183) and Emmanuel Moseley (5-11) split time at the other cornerback last year. Moseley started the first seven games, struggled at times, and finished with 27 tackles and the team-high 11 pass break-ups.

Martin, who played at Antioch High School and one season at Northeast Oklahoma A&M, started the last six games, played all 13 and finished with 23 tackles and six pass break-ups.

Sophomore Darrell Miller Jr. (5-10, 180), has left the team with plans
to transfer, but junior D.J. Henderson (6-1, 180) returns.

Miller played in five games last season at cornerback and was one of 15 true freshmen to make his career debut in the opener against Bowling Green.

Henderson, who played at James F. Byrnes High in Lyman, South Carolina, is a three- and four-star JUCO recruit out of Dodge City (Kansas) Community College.

“You talk about the competition at the second corner position, there are several variables, and it’s not just Justin Martin and Emmanuel Moseley, although they’re the guys who have the most playing time,” Shoop says. “It’s factoring in whether you might play Micah Abernathy at the nickel and move Malik Foreman and Marquill Osborne out there (at corner).

“It’s really finding, like you would any other situation, your best five guys for the nickel package right there and putting them all out there if you have the positional versatility.”

Foreman (5-10, 190), a senior from Dobyns-Bennett High in Kingsport, returns after starting 10 games and playing all 13 at nickel last year. He had 25 tackles (13 in the last four regular-season games), four tackles for loss, one interception and was second on the team in pass break-ups with 10.

Tennessee’s two starting safeties from 2015, Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil, were both seniors, but that doesn’t mean Shoop lacks confidence in their replacements.

Third-year sophomore Rashaan Gaulden of Independence High in Spring Hill was expected to be the Vols’ starting nickel back last year before suffering a broken bone in his foot in preseason and having surgery in late August.

Gaulden (6-1, 185), who played in 11 games as a true freshman, is a probable starter at a safety or the nickel spot along with junior Todd Kelly Jr. of Knoxville Webb.

Kelly Jr. (5-11, 208), who was on the SEC’s All-Freshman team in 2014 when he started three games, saw extensive playing time at strong safety last year. He started two games, played in all 13, and was fifth on the team in tackles (44). He led the team with three interceptions, a third coming just before halftime of the regular-season finale against Vanderbilt.

“T.K. has picked up where he left off in the spring,” Shoop points out.

Abernathy (6-0, 195), a sophomore from Greater Atlanta Christian, can play either safety position or nickel. He played in 12 games last year at nickel and special teams.

Junior Evan Berry (5-11, 207) and sophomore Stephen Griffin (6-2, 205) also are competing for spots in the safety rotation. Berry, twin brother of Elliott Berry and younger brother of the NFL’s Eric Berry, was an All-American kick returner last year when he led the nation in kickoff return average (38.3 yards) and three TD returns for touchdowns. Evan Berry had 18 tackles last season.

Osborne (5-11, 170) was an early enrollee out of William Amos Hough High in Cornelius, North Carolina, and practiced with the Vols in the spring.

“Everybody that deserves to play will play and the amount they deserve to play (in the secondary),” Shoop adds. “I’m not averse to playing a lot of guys over the course of a long season, especially early when you’re playing all these (up) tempo, no-huddle teams.”

Freshman Nigel Warrior (6-0, 186) should be an impact player in the secondary. He was rated the No. 2 safety in the nation and No. 20 overall for the Class of 2016 by Scout.com and chose UT over Alabama, LSU, Georgia and Ohio State. His father is Dale Carter, former UT All-American and NFL player.

“He’s got a skill set that merits us spending more time with him and helping us get him ready for the opening game,” Shoop says of Warrior.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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