When you walk out onto Haslam Field, a few Tennessee players quickly grab your eye. No. 35 in Orange is at the top of that list.
Sophomore linebacker Daniel Bituli is a man-child, with a chiseled 6-foot-3, 250-pound frame and a quiet, no nonsense attitude.
Bituli cracked heads on special teams last season, but the sophomore linebacker is ready to make a name for himself on defense in Year 2. This spring, football is suddenly “fun" again for Bituli, as the Nashville native expressed frustrations during a freshman season struggling to learn the scheme.
“That definitely kept me off the field a lot, and I just don’t want that to be an excuse this year,” Bituli said Tuesday. “I just want to go out there and help my team.”
The game has slowed down considerably for Bituli and he’s hungry to make his mark on the defense. The calls are more natural, and the sophomore isn’t thinking as much as simply reading and reacting to plays.
"Things have definitely slowed down and the game has become more fun for me,” he said.
“Through the process, you’re trying to learn all these things and it’s really frustrating, but things have slowed down for me.”
Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop recently concurred, saying, Bituli “has all the tools to be a very good player” but simply “just needs reps.”
Bituli spent last season watching the practice habits of linebackers Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Darrin Kirkland, and while he was mostly relegated to special teams duties, learning from the two All-SEC linebackers gave him a roadmap for the future. Now, he’s “ready to step up” and “do what they did.”
“I learned a lot from Reeves-Maybin,” Bituli explained. “He never complained. He just got out here and worked hard and that’s how I want to play. Whatever task I’m given, I’m going to do. No complaints.”
Bituli played in nine games in 2016, recording nine tackles — including a career-high five stops against Vanderbilt in his most extensive playing time to date. He believes he “gained his teammates’ respect” with his special teams role, but this spring is about pushing Kirkland for the No. 1 spot at middle linebacker.
The coaching staff has challenged Bituli to be more vocal and take charge of the defense — a role the confident, but soft-spoken linebacker is still adjusting to.
“They definitely want me more verbal this year. That’s a task I have to take,” he said. “It’s definitely harder coming in as a freshman and trying to speak to all these guys while trying to learn everything. But coming into my sophomore year, I’m definitely going to take a more of a leadership role, a verbal role, to influence guys to make plays and influence myself to make plays.”
For now, Bituli is repping exclusively at middle linebacker. With questions about depth, scheme (will Shoop run a more traditional 4-3 or stick with a 4-2-5 alignment?) and potential pairings, Bituli said he hasn’t played at all on the field alongside Kirkland … yet.
“No sir,” he said when asked about playing together with Kirkland, “but I wouldn’t be surprised if they do it later.”