First year Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt will get his first shot at Nick Saban on the football field this Saturday at Neyland Stadium, but Pruitt has already registered a couple of wins over his old boss on the recruiting trail. First it was tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson, then it was 2018 top-50 overall player linebacker JJ Peterson.
Peterson has been learning on the fly since arriving at Tennessee a day after the opener against West Virginia. He hasn’t gotten a chance to see the field yet, but Pruitt already has him working a new position. Tennessee worked in Peterson at outside linebacker on Wednesday, both for depth and future reasons.
“When we recruit linebackers, we like to recruit what we call four-for-four guys so they can play all four (linebacker) spots,” Pruitt said after practice on Wednesday. “JJ is a guy that physically could do that. Probably down the road, we foresee him being an inside linebacker, but hey, he’s a guy that could play outside as well. With our lack of depth at outside linebacker, we’ve given him some looks.”
Tennessee lost Jonathan Kongbo, who had started every game at outside linebacker this year, to an ACL tear last week against Auburn. Deandre Johnson is the likely starter in his place, with Austin Smith and Jordan Allen providing depth. For Pruitt, getting Peterson some reps on the outside is just about creating some more depth, just in case.
“He’s getting closer to physically being able to participate, but he’s still got a long ways to go mentally,” Pruitt said. “And that’s understandable, missing all of fall camp and the entire summer. Hey, JJ is going to be a really good football player one day, as long as he works hard and does what he’s supposed to do. We’re just giving him an opportunity now to see if he can help us in any way.”
Peterson is a prime candidate for a redshirt, though new NCAA rules would allow him to play in up to four games without losing that status. Peterson posted a picture on social media a few weeks back with four games circled, which included the Alabama contest. Might that be a clue of what’s coming this weekend?
With Tennessee set up nicely depth-wise at inside linebacker, Peterson’s quickest path to playing time may actually come on the outside. Still, as Pruitt said, he’s got a long way to go. It’s unrealistic to think we’d see too many meaningful snaps out of Peterson, but it’s possible he could see some mop-up work to get his feet wet in the second half of the season.