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Jeremy Pruitt Reloads Tennessee’s Secondary

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The 2019 defensive back class shows what Pruitt is looking for in his new system.

NCAA Football: Tennesee Practice Caitie McMekin-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee’s recruiting efforts paid off once again on Friday morning, when 4-star safety Jaylen McCollough announced his commitment to the Vols. McCollough is a consensus top-200 player nationally and top-30 in Georgia, where Tennessee now has 8 players committed. The Vols beat out multiple SEC teams for his services and currently hold the #11 spot on the 247Sports team recruiting ranking. No matter how you slice it, McCollough’s commitment was a huge win for Pruitt and the staff.

Obviously the rankings boost and addition to the class are the important parts of McCollough’s commitment. In a more general view however, the current commitments showcase exactly what Pruitt intends to do with his defensive backs from here on out.

Pruitt made it known early that the secondary might be the weakest part of the team. His comments during spring practice centered around the defensive backfield as a blank slate of sorts, with very few proven commodities. The staff was especially quick to flip Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson to cornerback, in hopes that they could find some answers at a particularly shallow and questionable position.

Pruitt also went on record saying that he wants versatility in his secondary. Players who can contribute at multiple positions bring the defense a whole new set of skills to work with, allowing them to put their most talented guys wherever they need them. It worked exceptionally well at Florida State when he had Jalen Ramsey, Ronald Darby, P.J. Williams, Lamarcus Joyner, and Terrence Brooks all contributing significantly throughout the year as either starters or rotational options.

That versatility is obvious among the current commits. So far, these are the cornerbacks and safeties that Tennessee has committed in their 2019 class:

  • 4-star Safety Jaylen McCollough
  • 4-star Safety Anthony Harris
  • 4-star Cornerback Tyus Fields
  • 3-star Athlete Aaron Beasley
  • 3-star Cornerback Warren Burrell

Firstly, take note of the sheer number. Tennessee is still going after 4-star cornerbacks Jaydon Hill and Maurice Hampton, with the understanding that they will take at least one. Assuming that Tennessee takes six defensive backs, that means they’re fully reloading both position groups.

To the versatility point, three of those players have been floated as options at multiple positions. McCollough can act as both a regular strong safety or the STAR safety in Pruitt’s system. Fields is a general defensive back who can play almost every spot in the secondary, though he projects best at either cornerback or free safety. Finally, Aaron Beasley’s athleticism has been noted.

But there’s another factor that goes beyond the general versatility: toughness. It’s become a bit of a running joke in football to talk about “gritty” players, but Tennessee’s current commits all have an obvious characteristic.

Every single player listed above has been noted for their physicality. In almost every scouting report available, their willingness to come up and hit has drawn attention. This is especially true with Fields, Beasley, and McCollough, all of whom could/will play safety at the next level. Beasley might even turn into a running back or linebacker if the coaches like what they see from him.

If they aren’t coming up and hitting, they’re jamming receivers at the line. Burrell is the best example of this, since he needs to gain weight in order to see the field, but his coverage skills have been noted. He has no fear in going up against a bigger receiver and does not shy away from tackles. Multiple teams considered Burrell as a top cornerback in the class, whose only question mark was how he would fill out at the next level.

It makes sense that Pruitt is going for a wholesale restructuring of the secondary. In addition to the general lack of talent, the secondary was unusually weak against the run. It’s not their primary responsibility, but if runners got to the second level (which they did a lot) Tennessee was helpless. Pruitt will attempt to navigate this problem through 2018 and then bring in an entirely new crop for the 2019 season. Considering what we’ve seen so far, Pruitt wants his secondary to undergo a complete philosophy shift. They shouldn’t just be good in coverage—they need to attack ball carriers with the same aggressiveness as the front six.

The rebuild will take a couple seasons before the staff is fully confident in the players they have at their disposal. 2019 should see more than a few freshman contributors, and by 2020 Pruitt will have a team constructed of almost entirely his recruits. If early indications mean anything, we already know what that secondary is going to look like.