Vols confident in Herring before linebacker’s first road start

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee sophomore linebacker Elijah Herring, shown celebrating the opening win over Virginia on Sept. 2 in Nashville, made his first career start last Saturday against Austin Peay and is scheduled to start again this weekend at Florida.

Elijah Herring's second career start will be very different from his first.

The Tennessee sophomore linebacker made his starting debut in last Saturday's 30-13 downing of Austin Peay, replacing an injured Keenen Pili in the lineup. Herring compiled four tackles in the victory at Neyland Stadium, but this week's test is a trip to Florida's famed Swamp, where the Volunteers last won in 2003.

"I felt like Elijah was ready to step up," Vols third-year linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary said this week in a news conference. "Keenan only went through about half of spring, so Elijah was able to get a bunch of first-team reps. We always coach them that they're one play away from being the starter or going from a third-teamer to a second-teamer.

"That mentality really came out last week, because I thought Elijah did a great job."

The Vols racked up 14 tackles for loss and seven sacks against the Governors, but Austin Peay did tally 339 yards and had the ball for more than 39 minutes. Tennessee was more dominant overall in its 49-13 opening win over Virginia in Nashville, collecting 11 tackles for loss and four sacks and limiting the Cavaliers to 201 yards.

Herring had a team-high five tackles in the opener, when he came off the bench for Pili, and he shared in a lost-yardage stop as well.

"We hit it with the next-man-up mentality," Herring said this week. "You've just got to be prepared for anything that can happen, because it's a long season. I think I played pretty good."

A three-star signee out of Riverdale High School in Murfreesboro, Herring enrolled at Tennessee in January 2022. The 6-foot-3, 238-pounder played in all 13 games last season as either a reserve strongside linebacker or on special teams, totaling 11 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.

Herring is starting now at middle linebacker, where he has more communication responsibilities. Jean-Mary said Austin Peay and its unique formations and movements before the snap tested Herring's communication skills, adding, "We want him to be a lot more vocal."

Florida could challenge Herring with its movement in the running game, not to mention the rushing duo of Montrell Johnson and Trevor Etienne, which never got going in the 24-11 opening loss at Utah but produced 26 combined carries for 203 yards and three touchdowns in last week's 49-7 thrashing of McNeese.

Herring's first career start may have come and gone, but the Swamp is expected to provide much more of a baptism.

"I thought Elijah was destructive last week and that he communicated at a high level," Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel said. "He's a young guy whose best football is going to come down the pike. We have great confidence in him."

Court date set

Tennessee fifth-year senior safety Jaylen McCollough, who was charged with felony aggravated assault following an incident last October at his Knoxville apartment, faces a trial date of Feb. 12, 2024, and he has a pretrial conference one month earlier.

A court hearing for McCollough, who was indicted in June, took place in Knox County on Wednesday morning, with the 6-foot, 206-pounder waiving his right to an appearance.

McCollough is accused of assaulting Zion Spencer, who apparently entered McCollough's apartment mistakenly and was then alleged to have been punched, which caused him to fall down stairs at the complex. The incident resulted in McCollough missing two games last season, but he started the other 11 and has started the first two this season.

Receiver assessment

Vols receivers had some tough moments against Austin Peay, and Heupel was asked to assess the position during his appearance Wednesday on the Southeastern Conference teleconference.

"For the most part, we've played with really good fundamentals," Heupel said. "There were a couple of holding calls last week, and one of them was probably real, but I think they have been really good out there, and we're going to continue to need that as we go. In terms of route-running, they've been pretty solid, but at the end of the day, there are some things that we need to clean up at both quarterback and with the receivers.

"We're certainly capable of it. We had a few dropped balls last week, and we've got to clean that up, but I believe in these guys. We've just got to settle in. Early in last week's game, I didn't think we were settled, and that will be big this week on the road in that type of environment."

Moving those chains

Tennessee junior Jaylen Wright is averaging 9.32 yards per rush, which ranks third nationally among running backs who have averaged at least 10 carries a contest.

Contact David Paschall at [email protected].