By Mark Nagi
During this break in the action, we sometimes have a hard time thinking about the return of sports. It almost hurts to hope. But we have faith this is just a temporary hiccup. With that in mind, let’s talk football.
Tennessee’s linebacking corps is taking a huge hit with the graduation of Daniel Bituli. He leaves with 266 career tackles and is the second Vol to lead the team in tackles for three consecutive seasons. He will be sorely missed.
But the good news is that the guy who finished second on the team in tackles last season seems destined for a college career just as good, if not better than Bituli’s.
Henry To’o To’o was a top 50 recruit nationally for the Class of 2019 and had offers from all the current powerhouses, including Alabama. A standout at De La Salle in California, there also was pressure to stay on the west coast and attend Southern Cal or Oregon.
But To’o To’o decided to head east. Tennessee gave him an opportunity to play right away. More important, he felt a connection with Vols head coach Jeremy Pruitt.
“You never know in recruiting who you can really trust, but coach Pruitt is someone my family and I trust completely,” To’o To’o told reporters last October. “He’s a genuine dude. He tells you the truth. He’ll do anything for you. He’s exactly the kind of coach I wanted to play for.”
To’o To’o started 12 games in 2019. He made 72 tackles and very quickly became one of the leaders on defense. His ability to lead by example was most evident in the Kentucky game when he suffered a dislocated kneecap.
The injury only cost him a few plays, as he was back with his defense on the next series.
“No injury is fun,” To’o To’o said. “But once you’re dedicated to something and once you love the group of men you’re around, you’d do anything for them.”
To’o To’o made eight tackles in that game, including a third down stop on Wildcats running back Chris Rodriguez during a memorable goal-line stand late in the 4th quarter. To’o To’o was named to several freshmen All-American teams.
He will be called on to mentor what is still a young group of linebackers at Tennessee, even though he is only going to be a sophomore this fall.
All of this — his talent, Bituli’s absence, Tennessee’s need for another defensive star — got me thinking about where he stands in relation to other impact linebackers at Tennessee in recent memory.
Darrin Kirkland was a force early in his career, starting 10 games at middle linebacker as a true freshman in 2015. He had 66 tackles that year. Unfortunately, injuries derailed his career. Jalen Reeves-Maybin was at his best during his sophomore and junior years with a combined 206 tackles. But his was mainly a special teams contributor as a freshman in 2014. Like Kirkland, Curt Maggitt has a terrific first year in the orange and white, with 56 tackles as a true freshman in 2011. Like Kirkland, injuries kept us from seeing him truly reach his athletic potential.
Tennessee had a lousy year in 2011, but it was a good year for linebackers. A.J. Johnson made 80 tackles as a true freshman, on his way to finishing his career with 425 tackles. He still sits 2nd all-time in UT history in that category. Rico McCoy is in a ninth place tie for tackles in Tennessee history with 350. His influence as a freshman was well off To’o To’o’s pace. McCoy had 38 tackles in this 2006 debut season.
Of course, whenever you talk about linebackers at Tennessee, you have to discuss Al Wilson, the heart and soul of the 1998 BCS and SEC championship team.
Wilson made 272 tackles at Tennessee, was a two time All-SEC player. He was also named All-American in 1998. The Vols were in good shape at linebacker with guys like Scott Gaylon and Tyrone Hines during Wilson’s freshman year in 1995. His impact began to be felt more significantly when he was a sophomore in 1996.
Henry To’o To’o isn’t at the level of those players. Not yet.
But he’s off to a pretty good start, and the Vols couldn’t be more fortunate.
Mark Nagi is the author of “Decade of Dysfunction,” which takes an up close look at all that led to Tennessee’s crazy coaching search in 2017. The book is available on Amazon.