Nov. 3, 2009
BY BETH RUCKER
The Associated Press
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Tennessee will turn to a pair of freshmen to replace junior linebacker Savion Frazier, who will miss the rest of the season after tearing a ligament in his right knee against South Carolina.
"We've now lost our second starting middle linebacker for the season _ a position that was already not very deep," coach Lane Kiffin said. "We're going to have to do a great job. Our staff's working on different options."
Frazier's predecessor, junior Nick Reveiz, suffered the same kind of season-ending injury Sept. 26 against Ohio.
The Vols replaced him with Frazier, who had playing experience at outside linebacker but hadn't ever been responsible for lining up the defense, a job that falls to the middle position.
Redshirt freshman Herman Lathers and true freshman Nigel Mitchell-Thornton are now competing for the spot as the Vols (4-4) prepare for Memphis (2-6). Both have high school experience lining up the defense, but neither has played much this season.
"They both have a bunch of talent. Herman's extremely fast. Nigel's very physical," Kiffin said. "We're going to have a really physical, starters versus starters, ones versus ones, practice this week and figure out who the best player is."
The coaches considered moving an outside linebacker, like team-leading tackler Rico McCoy, but determined that would create too much disruption for the defense now ranked 13th in the nation.
Replacing the defensive quarterback is tough enough. Tennessee had its worst defensive performances late against Ohio after Reveiz was out and in the following game against Auburn.
Defensive tackle Dan Williams said the team was especially comfortable with Reveiz when he suffered his injury and had just gotten comfortable with Frazier as he settled in at his new position.
"But it's part of the game, and we'll have to move on ... but luckily, we here at Tennessee have some good guys to come in and fill up," Williams said.
The Vols have relied quite a bit on a nickel package that uses an extra defensive back as a sort of lineman, but even that might not bail them out this time.
Cornerback Marsalous Johnson, who has worked quite a bit at nickelback, injured his thumb against South Carolina. Johnson underwent surgery, and the recovery will keep him out for a few weeks.
"It's a very difficult week for our defense versus an offense that gives us some problems, that spreads you out," Kiffin said. "Now we've got to figure out who's going to play in nickel, who's going to play in base (defense), and do we stay in one of them more than the other?"
The competition might be healthy though. With any shot of a championship out of the picture, Kiffin knows competition can help motivate his players, especially against a Memphis team that ranks 70th in offense and averages 21 points per game.
Aside from opening the competition at middle linebacker and nickelback, the coaches are also opening competition for the starting left guard spot, fullback, left defensive end in third-down situations and backup defensive tackle.
"That's how you become really good in November because you're bringing your guys along, and they understand you can't sit around. If you're not doing things right, someone's there to take your place," Kiffin said.