Nigel Mitchell-Thornton made the honor roll in all four years of high school.
Now, the Tennessee defense needs every brain cell the freshman has available.
Mitchell-Thornton was the last middle linebacker standing in the Volunteers’ 34-23 win over Ohio on Saturday night.
Starter Nick Reveiz went down with what looks to be a season-ending knee injury. Before that, fellow middle Herman Lathers sustained a concussion on a wicked hit during a kickoff return.
That made Mitchell-Thornton the guy responsible for making all the checks and calls in Monte Kiffin’s defense for the remainder of the game against the Bobcats.
It won’t be easy for anyone to replace Reveiz. While it sounds a bit bizarre to describe an undersized former walk-on as invaluable, he did a masterful job getting the Vols lined up properly in the “Tampa 2” scheme, and became the first former walk-on to earn a team captaincy since J.J. McCleskey in 1992.
During his coach’s show Sunday, Lane Kiffin said he “can’t even explain how important that guy is to us,” referring to Reveiz.
His replacement agreed.
“Nick is the guy I always looked up to,” said Mitchell-Thornton. “He was always the guy that I always went to for help any time I didn’t understand things at the mike position. I pretty much looked up to the man.”
Reveiz even gave Mitchell-Thornton some encouragement during the second half.
“He pretty much crutched his way over there and asked me did I need any help, was I OK and how was I doing out there,” the freshman noted. “I send all my prayers to him.”
Even if Lathers can get back for this week’s game against Auburn, Mitchell- Thornton might be the guy who replaces Reveiz long term. In the season opener against Western Kentucky, with victory well in hand, the Vols pulled several defensive starters including Reveiz. With Lathers at middle linebacker, the Vols looked lost and the Hilltoppers promptly marched down the field for a touchdown.
Early reviews on Mitchell-Thornton’s performance against Ohio were solid.
“He stepped up and assumed responsibility. I was impressed with him,” said Rico McCoy, the starter on the weak side and now the last healthy upperclassman remaining among UT’s linebacking corps.
“He did his job. He’s going to get way more reps now. He can’t do nothing but get better,” McCoy added.
Lane Kiffin expects UT’s defense to improve on its mediocre performance against the Bobcats. Certainly, getting Dennis Rogan back from an administrative suspension will help, but it won’t make the remaining linebackers any more seasoned. Experience will have to come from on-the-job training.
“Your linebackers have got to be very good athletes and they’ve got to be able to adjust,” Monte Kiffin said back in August. “For these freshmen, there’s a lot of pressure on them.”
John Moorehouse covers University of Tennessee football for the Times-News. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.