Who are the best linebackers in Tennessee’s long history of producing greats?

5. Andy Spiva (1973-76): A tackling machine who by all accounts set the tone for the Vols defenses of which he was a part, Spiva still holds the SEC’s all-time record for career tackles with 547. (For reference, no one in the SEC in ’13 or ’14 even equaled his four-year average of 137 tackles per season.) A fifth-round draft pick in 1977, Spiva entered the ’78 season as the starting middle linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons, but missed the year due to injury, then died in a tragic one-car accident at 25 years old.

4. Jackie Walker (1968-71): The SEC’s first black team captain, Walker returned five of his 11 interceptions at Tennessee for touchdowns, still tied for the most all-time in NCAA history. One of the touchdowns came when he “intercepted” a toss sweep against Alabama and returned it for a score. Tackles didn’t become an official tracked statistic until his junior and senior seasons, but he made 258 in those two years, earning All-American status in both.

3. Al Wilson (1995-98): He epitomized leadership during the glory days of the linebacker position, when the most revered player on a defense was the middle linebacker. Wilson would’ve been even better if his career started now, as his best skill was his ability to drop into pass coverage. He did manage an All-American season on the ’98 national championship team despite missing three games due to injury. His 272 total tackles aren’t eye-catching, but Wilson couldn’t be defined by numbers alone, as he was the soul of those Vols defenses, good enough to get drafted in the first round and go on to make five Pro Bowls for the Denver Broncos.

2. Frank Emanuel (1963-65): A two-way standout when he arrived in Knoxville in ’63, Emanuel ushered in one of the greatest decades in SEC history for a single team at linebacker when the team let him focus on the position beginning in ’64. Emanuel led the team in tackles each of his last two seasons, including a mind-numbing performance against Kentucky. Reportedly picking up on their plays, Emanuel recorded 26 tackles in the game. The Vols went 8-2-1 that season as Emanuel earned All-American honors.

1. Steve Kiner (1966-69): Tennessee fans didn’t have to wait long after Emanuel left to find the next superstar linebacker. A two-time All-American and a three-year starter for the Vols, Kiner was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year in 1969, finishing ninth in the Heisman voting. According to Alabama coach Bear Bryant, Kiner was “the best in this league since Lee Roy Jordan played for us.” Kiner went on to an OK professional career, but at UT, he was the best during a rich era of linebackers.

Others Considered: Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds, Alvin Toles, Keith DeLong, Jerod Mayo and A.J. Johnson.