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For J.J. Peterson, now is the time

Thanks to injuries and departures, Peterson has a chance to emerge this spring.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 02 UAB at Tennessee Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For Jeremy Pruitt, J.J. Peterson represents his first big recruiting win over his former boss. The former four-star prospect chose Tennessee over Alabama after a heated battle throughout December in 2017.

All of the momentum from that big commitment was seemingly tossed away in the fall, however. Peterson fought to simply enroll at Tennessee, tasked with bringing up his grades from his senior year of high school. After a drawn out process, Peterson joined the team after the first game against West Virginia.

Understandably so, Peterson was behind. Way behind. He spent the first month of the season simply settling in on campus and beginning to get into shape. He appeared in just four games, taking advantage of the NCAA’s new redshirt rules.

“He is a guy that just needs to play,” Pruitt said of Peterson in 2018. “The more reps he gets, the better he will be. He just has to get out there and go play.”

With a challenging 2018 behind him and four years ahead, most expected to see something from Peterson in 2019. But what we saw was very little. Freshman Henry To’o To’o was immediately inserted into the starting lineup alongside of Daniel Bituli. Even after Will Ignont, Jeremy Banks and Shanon Reid left the team, Peterson didn’t really see the field on defense. The redshirt freshman did make contributions in mop-up time and on special teams, totaling 11 tackles on the year.

Now a redshirt sophomore and with nothing holding him back, Peterson has a chance to make something happen this spring. Bituli is gone — along with the aforementioned Ignont, Reid and Banks. Tennessee’s depth at the linebacker position won’t arrive until the fall, when they’ll add four four-star linebackers.

But right now? Tennessee has just four scholarship bodies at inside linebacker. Quavaris Crouch is the likely replacement for Bituli, but he will miss the spring with an injury. Peterson will never have a chance at more reps and more experience than he does this spring. With three full seasons left, it’s tough to say it’s now or never — but that may be the case here.

There’s a reason Tennessee is going after Jabril Cox. Tennessee could really use the experience in the middle of the defense. For now though, Pruitt is banking on Peterson becoming at least serviceable for some important depth in 2020.