Last year, Tennessee had a pair of players earn Freshmen All-American honors after the 2018 season. Cornerback Bryce Thompson was named a Freshman All-American by the Football Writers Association of America, and punter Joe Doyle earned the distinction from USA Today. The previous season in 2017, Trey Smith was named a Freshman All-American by three different outlets (FWAA, USA Today, 247Sports).
The 2019 season hasn’t even started yet, but three Vols are considered true freshmen All-American caliber players in the preseason.
247Sports selected a True Freshman Preseason All-American team before the start of the 2019 season, and three Tennessee players found their way onto the list. The Vols’ three selections are tied with Alabama for the most by a single team on the 247Sports’ list.
The three Vols who earned the preseason honors are offensive lineman Wanya Morris, linebacker Henry To’oto’o, and cornerback Warren Burrell.
Morris enrolled early with the Vols in January and looks in line to be a Week 1 starter for Tennessee along the offensive line. 247Sports is predicting that Morris will more or less follow in Trey Smith’s footsteps in 2017 and will perform up to his five-star status in his first year with UT.
“Tennessee desperately needed help on the offensive line so Morris enrolled early, lived up to his five-star billing and now looks poised to lock down the starting left tackle job on a team that is trying to reassert itself on the line of scrimmage,” 247Sports says of the Vols’ star freshman.
While To’oto’o wasn’t an early enrollee, he also looks to be in line for a lot of early playing time and is pushing veterans at the inside linebacker spot during his first fall camp. Jeremy Pruitt has praised the freshman linebacker for his intelligence and ability to already call plays despite being with the team only a few months.
That IQ along with his superb athleticism makes To’oto’o look like a surefire contributor in 2019.
“Tennessee needed help at linebacker. It recruited one of the highest ranked linebackers in the class out of California. He’s playing like one of the best linebackers in the class,” 247Sports says of To’oto’o. “That’s how you want recruiting to work and in the case of To’oto’o, Tennessee appears to have hit it out of the park and found an instant starter.”
Time will tell if To’oto’o starts Week 1 for the Vols, but he at least figures to be featured heavily in the linebacker rotation early on even if he doesn’t start.
As for Burrell, he’s easily the lowest-ranked player on the preseason All-American list, but he’s not been performing like a middling three-star so far in fall camp.
No other position player outside of Burrell on the preseason freshman All-American team was rated lower than a top-500 overall prospect in the 247Sports Composite rankings. Burrell, however, was the No. 527 overall recruit in the 2019 class. Only Duke offensive lineman Jacob Monk (No. 479) and Washington safety Cameron Williams (No. 404) were the only other players on the list ranked outside of the top 400 recruits in the 2019 cycle.
Though he has yet to play in a game, Burrell has far exceeded that ranking in fall camp thus far, and he’s been competing for playing time in an experienced UT secondary.
“The 2019 recruiting class was supposed to fill a lot of holes for Tennessee but cornerback was not one of those holes,” 247Sports says. “Burrell looks poised to beat out one of two cornerbacks that were quality starters last year as true freshmen because he’s just been too good to sit.”
While 247Sports’ assessment that Burrell could beat out either Bryce Thompson or Alontae Taylor for a starting role may not be completely accurate, Burrell certainly looks in line for a lot of playing time early on. Burrell could fill one of the two outside corner spots, but that would likely just move Taylor or Thompson to nickelback, still making them a de facto starter. Burrell is also being looked at as a nickel corner and could get his “starts” at that position instead.
However you look at it, Burrell is challenging for playing time and is making his presence felt in Tennessee’s defensive backfield.
These three true freshmen will all likely leave their mark on Tennessee’s 2019 season, but they also won’t be the only ones. Offensive lineman Darnell Wright, linebacker Quavaris Crouch, and running back Eric Gray all figure to play a large amount of snaps, and one or two of those players could be starters during the 2019 campaign, too. Safety Jaylen McCollough and defensive tackle Elijah Simmons will likely make an impact as well.
Preseason honors and accolades matter little, and naming preseason freshmen All-Americans seems a little odd in a way, but it’s clear that the Vols have a number of newcomers who are expected to be pivotal in Tennessee’s success this upcoming season.
Tennessee has had at least one freshman earn Freshmen All-American honors the last two seasons and have seen a player earn Freshman All-American honors five of the last six years. There’s a very good chance that continues in 2019.