Henry To’o To’o wouldn’t say that he feels old now that he is a sophomore.
But the Tennessee Vols linebacker definitely feels that it is his time to step into a leadership role.
“I have to be able to lead the guys, no matter who it is,” To’o To’o said. “Age doesn’t matter when it’s time to be a leader. You’ve got to be a leader, not only on the field, but off the field, to be able to do the right things all the time. …
“Now, I have to do a better job of setting the example and to be able to confront guys when they’re not doing the right things.”
To’o To’o is the unquestioned leader in the middle of Tennessee’s defense as a sophomore.
He was named to multiple freshman All-America teams last season. He had 72 tackles, finishing second on the Vols behind only Daniel Bituli, whom he credits for equipping him to lead.
“I feel like since I saw Bituli lead and saw the way he did things on and off the field,” To’o To’o said. “He did everything right. I just want to be able to do what he did. He showed me the ways.
“I just want to exceed his expectations from now.”
To’o To’o cracked the UT lineup immediately and started 12 games as a freshman after arriving as a highly touted prospect from powerhouse De La Salle in Concord, California. He said he spent his offseason trying to get stronger after identifying shedding blocks as a fault in his game.
“With Henry, he has changed his body,” Vols defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley said. “He shredded some body fat and added some muscle. He has gotten quicker at the point of attack. He is a lot better laterally with a change of direction and covering running backs out of the backfield.”
The 6-foot-2, 225-pound To’o To’o will be the centerpiece of a defense returning its top contributors on the line and three of four starters in the secondary. But the linebacker group is replacing two key pieces after mainstays Bituli and Darrell Taylor graduated.
Kivon Bennett and Deandre Johnson are expected to get the first opportunity at outside linebacker, while To’o To’o’s partner on the inside could be sophomore Quavaris Crouch. Ansley said Jeremy Banks, who was reinstated after being dismissed in October, is backing up Crouch.
“It is an open competition,” Ansley said. “Those guys are battling tooth and nail for that starting position.”
To’o To’o didn’t express an opinion on who he’d like to line up next to him at linebacker. Instead, he praised the chemistry and work ethic of the entire linebacker position for putting in extra work to be ready for UT’s 2020 season, which opens on Sept. 26 at South Carolina.
“He has done a really good job of trying to take a leadership role void of Daniel, Nigel (Warrior) and Darrell,” Ansley said. “Those are three really good leaders that we lost.”
Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.