Tennessee’s Most Important Players for 2024: No. 20 (2024)

GoVols247 ranks Tennessee football’s most important players for the 2024 season – a promising young linebacker kicks off the countdown.

Patrick Brown

Now past the midway point of the offseason’s third phase, Tennessee is speeding toward the start of the 2024 college football season. After a 9-4 campaign in their third season under head coach Josh Heupel, the Vols enter a new era of the sport with an expanded SEC and the 12-team College Football Playoff heading in the right direction with 20 wins over the past two seasons, but while some position groups will be relying on a handful of veteran players, other units are turning the page to newcomers or the program’s crop of up-and-coming talent. With SEC Media Days and the start of preseason camp nearing, GoVols247 this month will be ranking Tennessee’s most important players for the upcoming season.

This will be our sixth edition of the countdown – and third under Heupel, because who knew what to expect going into his first season in 2021 – and again it will include most of Tennessee’s projected starters. It also leans heavily toward proven players over newcomers, though multiple transfers the Vols brought in from the portal will be featured, too. As happens every season, there will be unlikely players who emerge as key figures for Tennessee in 2024, but this list considers factors such as the player’s overall value for the Vols, the drop-off to their replacements if the team had to go a stretch of the season or most of a key game without them and how important their performance is to Tennessee’s success.

The ranking begins with sophom*ore linebacker Arion Carter at No. 20.

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PLAYER PROFILE

  • Height: 6-1
  • Weight: 230 pounds
  • Hometown (High school): Smyrna, Tenn. (Smyrna HS)
  • 247Sports recruiting ranking (2023): Four-star (93 rating), No. 183 overall, No. 15 linebacker, No. 3 in Tennessee

CAREER STATS

  • 2023 (Freshman): Played in eight games before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery and totaled 17 tackles with one tackle for loss and one pass breakup.

2024 OUTLOOK

One of several big recruiting wins in that top-10 2023 recruiting class for the Vols, Carter chose the home-state program at the end of an all-out battle between rivals Tennessee and Alabama, and he generated nothing but hype during his first offseason with the program. There was plenty of excitement about him behind the scenes, and it didn’t hurt he notched an interception of Joe Milton III during a team period in the second practice of spring ball. Then-linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary couldn’t help but talk Carter up either during preseason camp last August, saying the freshman was so talented he often could make up for mistakes.

After plenty of build-up, Carter’s impact during the season was muted even after the first-game injury to Keenan Pili threw a huge wrench into Tennessee’s plans at linebacker. He was part of the rotation from the start and got at least a dozen snaps in the first five games, but played less than 10 snaps on defense in all three SEC games in October before the shoulder injury against Kentucky sidelined himthe rest of the way. Carter looked like a freshman still relatively new to linebacker, playing a half-step slow and fighting through inconsistency while flashing his exciting upside.

Carter was not cleared for contact during spring ball earlier this year as he completed his recovery from November surgery, but he was active in practices, whether he was doing the drills he could or mimicking or shadowing the ones he couldn’t, and engaged in the meeting room. He certainly made a strong first impression on new linebackers coach William Inge, who took over for Jean-Mary in February. Carter should be a major factor for the starting spot alongside Pili when the Vols take the field for preseason practices next month.

WHY NO. 20?

Tennessee’s Most Important Players for 2024: No. 20 (2)

Tennessee and defensive coordinator Tim Banks put a lot on their linebackers, who have to be stout in-the-box players against the run, hold up in middle-field zone coverage or when tasked to play man against tight ends and running backs and offer a finishing threat as a blitzer. So it’s already an important spot in the defense, and the challenge this particular group faces is replacing three-year starter Aaron Beasley. He didn’t land on an NFL roster after finishing his productive Tennessee career, but that doesn’t reflect how valuable he was for the Vols as a timely playmaker, a consistent presence and eraser capable of cleaning up plays when needed.

The Vols are happy to welcome Pili back to the starting Mike spot, but the potential drop-off from a veteran like Beasley to a more unproven player is a concern going into 2024. Tennessee isn’t hurting for options with junior Kalib Perry and sophom*ores Carter and Jeremiah Telander, and any one of those three realistically could emerge in the Will linebacker role. It’s unclear if Inge will rotate as much as Jean-Mary was willing to, but Carter has the highest upside among the trio.

Perry manned the first-team spot for much of spring practice while Carter was out, but bet against the gifted second-player eventually taking over that role at your own risk. Sure, he wasn’t quite the instant hit the Vols were hoping he’d be, but it’s likely a matter of when and not if the light comes on for Carter. When it does, he should make his presence felt as an rangy, physical run defender who can hold up in space and play on the other side of the line of scrimmage.

Carter was committed to Memphis as a running back before his recruitment took off during his senior season when he emerged as a dominant linebacker. Tennessee didn’t get a chance to see that player as a freshman because he was still adjusting to the speed of the game, new to the X’s and O’s and probably thinking too much, but his TFL against South Carolina, when he knifed past a couple of blockers to stop a screen pass in its tracks, showed the potential Carter has when he’s playing freely and on instincts. Now it’s just about getting him to that point, and if it’s sooner than later then the Vols might not skip a beat replacing Beasley.

“When you hear him on the sidelines, you can tell he understands football and knows some of the schematic things that we want,” Inge said in April. “When you see him move, and we look at some of our player speeds and player loads, he’s always one of the top guys up there from a movement standpoint. So we know we’re going to get someone that’s coming back that’s probably even faster than all the guys that are currently in the room, and that’s what really has me excited.

“He is the one guy in the morning that is coming in every morning trying to get a head start on what’s going on today, what are we going to do, what’s all in the install. ‘Hey Coach, I want to learn about both positions.’ It is awesome having a chance to really talk to him, and he is exactly what you want in your program.”

Tennessee’s Most Important Players for 2024: No. 20 (2024)

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