Why for Tennessee football linebacker Keenan Pili is

Why for Tennessee football linebacker Keenan Pili is

Keenan Pili is versatile, big, strong and physical — and that’s only the first few adjectives Tennessee football linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary chose Tuesday to describe the senior linebacker.

In other words, Pili is exactly what the Vols want as a middle linebacker physically. But that’s not why Jean-Mary pegged Pili as a “breath of fresh air.”

“He’s been a breath of fresh air because he’s one of those kids that’s asks the right questions, wants to know how he can get better every day,” Jean-Mary said. “He’s done a whale of a job since he’s been here fitting into our system, obviously getting to know his teammates and bringing that leadership role because of his experience and the type of person that he is.”

Pili and Aaron Beasley are locked in as starting inside linebackers for No. 12 Tennessee, which opens its season against Virginia on Saturday (noon ET, ABC) at Nashville’s Nissan Stadium. Jean-Mary praised both as leaders on the defense and is comfortable with the duo in the middle of the unit.

Pili is one of three transfers in line for a notable role on the Tennessee defense. He transferred from BYU along with cornerback Gabe Jeudy-Lally. Defensive tackle Omarr Norman-Lott transferred from Arizona State.

The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Pili was a captain at BYU in 2021 and 2022. He has played in 36 career games with 25 starts.

“He’s played a lot of football through his college career and he brings that element to our defense,” Jean-Mary said. “I would say that’s the poise when things could be going haywire. He’s the same guy from Play 1 to Play 20. And I think the other guys feed off of that. When you have a leader that doesn’t let the emotions of the game get to them and kind of brings everybody back down to a level where we can go execute.”

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Pili has 190 career tackles with 11 tackles for loss and three sacks. He had 62 tackles and five tackles for loss in 2022. He’s expected to form a potent pair with Beasley, who had a team-high 76 tackles in 2022. He had 13 tackles and three sacks, including a pair in a standout showing in the Orange Bowl against Clemson.

Beasley and Pili are the starters ahead of a promising group of young linebackers in sophomores Elijah Herring and Kalib Perry and freshmen Arion Carter and Jeremiah Telander. Jean-Mary labeled Carter as explosive and Telander as aggressive Tuesday.

Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at michael.wilson@knoxnews.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