KNOXVILLE — The Tennessee football team’s inside linebacker position looked poised for success ahead of this season.
The spot featured a veteran leader in senior Daniel Bituli as well as one of Tennessee’s highest-ranked prospects from the 2019 class — Henry To’o To’o.
While the Volunteers have retained that pair, they no longer enjoy the depth they had earlier last month. Tennessee has lost three of its inside linebackers — Shannon Reid, Will Ignont and Jeremy Banks — leaving the position dangerously thin with only five now in the picture.
Bituli and To’o To’o are the only two of those remaining inside linebackers who have contributed regularly this season. The senior-freshman duo combined for 13 tackles in Tennessee’s 43-14 loss to Georgia on Saturday night at Neyland Stadium.
Georgia (5-0) racked up 526 yards against Tennessee (1-4) — slightly over the Bulldogs’ average (508.8).
“You’ve got to give props to their O-line,” To’o To’o said. “Great backs and a great O-line is a good combination to have, so they were able to get the ball off and create lanes.”
A freshman out of Sacramento, California, To’o To’o entered Saturday leading the Vols with 25 tackles, including 2.5 for loss. He finished with seven tackles against Georgia while Bituli contributed six. Both had two tackles for loss.
Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm was 24-for-29 for 288 yards. The Bulldogs entered halftime ahead 26-14 adding 17 in the second half as part of 33 unanswered points.
“Defensively in the first half, we couldn’t get them stopped,” Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “Some of that had to do with Georgia, some of it had to do with us. One of the first things you have to do to be a good defensive team is you have to make the other team earn it and, sometimes tonight, we didn’t make them earn it. We had just a couple of hiccups and their quarterback — he’s not going to miss them.”
To’o To’o did, however, make a pair of big back-to-back stops on Georgia’s D’Andre Swift on third-and-2 and fourth-and-1 late in the third quarter. Swift — who entered Saturday averaging almost 100 yards rushing — finished with 72 yards on the ground.
“We just have to come out and give the offense back the ball,” To’o To’o said. “We don’t really dwell on what happens on the offensive side, we just go out there and play defense.”
Banks is Tennessee’s most recent loss after being dismissed from the team Friday when footage of his arrest last month surfaced. The sophomore linebacker was taken into custody on Sept. 15 after a traffic stop revealed that he had an outstanding warrant for his arrest for driving with a suspended license.
In the video, Banks was being profane as well as threatening while speaking with officers.
“Ma’am, I don’t think you want to be an intern, because where I’m from, we shoot at cops. I’m from Memphis, Tennessee,” he said.
That loss came weeks after Reid entered the transfer portal and Ignont left the program for what coach Jeremy Pruitt called “personal reasons.” Both are juniors, and both were consistent contributors.
Reid had a career-high seven tackles against Chattanooga. He had 17 career tackles, including 11 this season.
Ignont initially looked likely to start at inside linebacker this year after Darrin Kirkland Jr. retired this summer because of nagging injuries and Bituli missed the first two games because of knee injury. Ignont recorded 15 tackles while starting in the first two games.
From that point on, Ignont began playing a much smaller role with the return of Bituli.
To’o To’o — who became the first true freshman to start at linebacker in a season opener since 2011 — sustained his spot as a starter, and the development of Banks also contributed to Ignont’s limited time on the field.
Banks finished his brief career with Tennessee with 10 tackles — one tackle for loss — two interceptions and two passes defended.
Behind To’o To’o and Bituli at inside linebacker are redshirt freshman J.J. Peterson, redshirt sophomore Solon Page III and freshman Aaron Beasley, who recently shifted from safety to inside linebacker to add depth to the position.
Peterson has one tackle for the season while Page and Beasley have yet to see playing time.
To’o To’o said if he had to pick the lesson he has taken away from playing in two SEC games, he said it would be executing late. The Bulldogs scored a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
“I would say being able to execute and finish off games,” To’o To’o said. “We need to execute in the fourth quarter and be able do what we have to do and make the plays that we need.”