If you watched Tennessee’s game against UTEP on Saturday or were online at any point after it, you probably saw head coach Jeremy Pruitt have a heated conversation on the sideline with sophomore linebacker Deandre Johnson. Pruitt had to call a timeout in the first half after Johnson wasn’t lined up correctly on defense, and he got into the sophomore’s face on the sideline as he talked it over with him.
Pruitt was asked about that moment on Monday and his thoughts on Tennessee’s sophomore pass rusher. Pruitt clarified that he grabbed the sophomore’s helmet to tell him to “look at me when we’re talking,” and Pruitt was highly complimentary on Johnson’s future with the Vols.
“I think Deandre’s got a really bright future,” Pruitt said during his weekly Monday press conference. “He’s a guy that I think can rush the quarterback. He can play off the edge, and I have a lot of confidence in him.
“Deandre is gonna be a really good player for us.”
Though he’s only recorded one tackle this season so far (a tackle for loss against UTEP), Johnson has served as the main outside linebacker off the bench to spell Jonathan Kongbo and Darrell Taylor this season. He’s appeared in all three games so far, and over the last couple weeks, his playing time has increased as the Vols have prepared for Florida and the upcoming SEC schedule.
Johnson was brought in as an undersized defensive end in the 2017 class for the Vols. As a true freshman, he totaled four tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack, and two forced fumbles in six total appearances. He flashed some potential last season, and Pruitt has seen that even more so far this season.
In Tennessee’s new 3-4 defensive system, Johnson’s athleticism and speed can be used more effectively than it was in the 4-3 scheme. Johnson doesn’t have to worry as much about playing with a hand in the dirt and can come off the edge with speed.
The Vols have struggled with pass rushing to start this season, only totaling five sacks through three games so far this year. And none of Tennessee’s outside linebackers have been credited with any of those sacks. Johnson has looked energetic and, at times, better at harassing opposing quarterbacks than Tennessee’s starters when he’s been on the field. But he’s yet to earn a sack or be credited with a quarterback hurry.
Right now, both Kongbo and Taylor remain Tennessee’s starting outside linebackers. But Johnson is earning more and more playing time, and Pruitt likes what the sophomore brings to the field.
Tennessee will need better production from their front seven if they hope to win or even be competitive in SEC games coming up. And Pruitt may start leaning on Johnson more as the season goes on if he continues to learn from his mistakes and tap into that potential that Pruitt sees in him.