As Jeremy Pruitt pointed out on Tuesday afternoon following Tennessee’s 10th practice of fall camp, Bryce Thompson and Alontae Taylor are generating the most buzz in the secondary.
Rightfully so, as the sophomore duo were tremendous as freshmen last season, and that was after each were moved to cornerback last offseason. Taylor primarily played on the offensive side of the ball in high school, as did Thompson.
But according to Pruitt, that doesn’t mean they’ve hit their ceilings.
“Bryce and Alontae played (last season) because they were the best players here,” Pruitt said. “Both of those guys have a long way to go to improve as football players.
“I think both players have a really good skill set to play the position. They’re different. They work hard, they like ball. So they have a chance to be good football players down the road.”
Taylor played in all 12 games last season, starting nine games and becoming the first freshman defensive back to start a season opener for Tennessee since Cameron Sutton did so in 2013. The Manchester, Tennessee native didn’t look back. As one of the nation’s top freshman corners, Taylor recorded 40 tackles, forced two fumbles, two tackles for a loss, and two pass deflections. Against West Virginia in the season-opener, his first ever collegiate football game, Taylor blocked a punt.
On the other side of the field, Thompson was named a 2018 FWAA Freshman All-American and was voted onto the SEC All-Freshman team. He was even the SEC Freshman of the Week following his performance against East Tennessee State in Week Two. Thompson was also a three-time member of the Pro Football Focus College SEC Defensive Team of the Week.
With 34 tackles, 10 pass deflections, three interceptions, four tackles for a loss, a forced fumble, and a sack, the Irmo, South Carolina native was the highest graded freshman corner in the country according to Pro Football Focus. Starting 10 out of the Vols’ 12 games last season, Thompson’s three interceptions led Tennessee and were the most by a freshman in the SEC.
“Are they (good football players) right now?” Pruitt asked of Thompson and Taylor. “They still have a ways to go.”
And that’s why, in the words of Pruitt, it’s good that newcomers are creating competition.
There’s finally somebody that can push the dynamic duo in the secondary after the unit being thin last year. Senior cornerback Baylen Buchanan had been the only other corner on the roster who had played significant snaps, but after Tuesday’s news that he would be out indefinitely due to injury, the arrival of freshman corner Warren Burrell has been critical.
Freshmen are creating competition all over Tennessee’s roster, but nobody is creating a sense of urgency for the veterans in front of them like Burrell.
“Warren has done a good job,” Pruitt said of the Georgia native. “Does he need to get stronger? Absolutely. Does he need to improve his play at the line of scrimmage? He does.
“But the guy has ball skills. He’s smart, he’s coachable, he’s instinctive and he plays with toughness. When you go out and play, he always shows up.”
Burrell starred at North Gwinnett High School, where he was an unanimous Georgia Class 7A All-State selection in 2017 and earned All-County honors as a senior in 2018. As a junior, he led North Gwinnett to a 14-1 record and the Georgia Class 7A State Championship. Burrell had 61 tackles, seven interceptions, 11 pass breakups, and blocked two kicks.
Now at Tennessee, he’s competing for playing time with two of the top young corners in the SEC.
Pruitt stated that Burrell isn’t perfect, but the competition he brings is good not only for Taylor and Thompson, but it speaks to Burrell’s skills in the secondary as well.
“Is he perfect? No,” Pruitt said of Burrell. “But he’s a freshman, right? Nobody is (perfect).
“It’s good that he’s here. I’m glad that he’s here to compete with those other guys. We’ve got good competition there, and we need it.”
Since fall camp began, Burrell has surged to the top of the depth chart at corner following a strong showing in the spring and summer as an early enrollee. Part of his surge may have to do with the depth Tennessee lacks, but he’s also earned it.
In Sunday’s scrimmage he was running with the first team and has impressed in practice on numerous occasions. Burrell is fixated on not only being a key player for the Vols in Pruitt’s second-year, but for the next several years.
Pruitt proved last season he’s not afraid to play younger players if they prove to be the best player at their spot. That may happen again this year if Burrell continues to push this fall.