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Tennessee Football: It’s sink or swim time for linebacker J.J. Peterson

The linebacker room gets more talented, and he’s in danger of falling behind.

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

All the focus is currently is on the Tennessee 2021 recruiting class and its never-before-seen streak of commitments. While it is a sight to behold, the 2020 season will not be played with 2021 recruits. There is a roster that continues to add talent and replace the Butch Jones players with the Jeremy Pruitt players. If the team wants to meet expectations in any way, they’re going to need this set of players on campus to live up to the billing.

Naturally, there’s going to be guys who don’t. Our next series, labeled “Bust Watch 2020” will go in depth on three players we think are in danger of becoming busts if they don’t turn things around, and fast.

Last year we compressed it into one article. This year we’re going to break it up a little and spend more time on each player.

Without further ado, here’s the first name in our series. It might be a shock to some, but there are some concerning signs.

LB J.J. Peterson

It’s funny to look back at the 2018 recruiting cycle and reminisce on the saga that was J.J. Peterson’s enrollment. First and foremost, he was the crown jewel of the 2018 Tennessee recruiting class. He was the top-100 player who Auburn, Georgia, and Alabama went hard after. He was the one that Pruitt was able to grab and stave off rival programs. Peterson was expected to be a Day 1 impact player on a Tennessee defense with virtually no guaranteed starters.

Instead, the storyline became about Peterson being eligible. It was a running joke amongst the fanbase when any recruiting Q&A sessions quickly devolved into “Do you have an update on J.J. Peterson?”. Such questions would receive a handful of serious responses, and then a deluge of people claiming their cousin’s uncle’s estranged wife saw him in Knoxville.

Well, Peterson did make it to campus eventually! Albeit at the latest possible time and clearly overweight. From then on it was expected that he’d need a redshirt year to not only get conditioned, but to catch up to the rest of his fellow enrollees.

That year (2018) came and went. Going into 2019, Peterson had expectations of carving out a starting role, or at the very least a rotational one.

Instead, he was a reserve linebacker who got less playing time than two true freshman in Henry To’o To’o and Quavaris Crouch.

Peterson’s window for becoming a contributor is closing, and fast. Anytime you have two true freshman passing you in reps, it’s never a great sign. Peterson has just as much—if not more—talent than either of those mentioned above. Yet other factors clearly caused the coaching staff to look elsewhere.

Peterson still has three years left in his college career, so calling him a bust at this point would be way too harsh and premature. But you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think there’s been discussions in those coaching offices about where he fits into the future of the team. Tennessee just signed three true linebackers in the 2020 class, and it’s already been accepted that both To’o To’o and Crouch will be getting the nod at two starting spots. That only leaves a couple possibilities for Peterson. Deandre Johnson is the other expected contributor, so it could very well be just one.

At minimum, Peterson needs to become a regular contributor in the rotation. It’s increasingly unlikely that another season without making any impact will benefit him.

It’s time for him to become the player that gave fans that jolt of excitement in 2018. If not, he might get lost in the shuffle.