With the way Tennessee’s 2019 season has started, Vol fans have been clamoring for UT to play more of their younger players instead of some of the veterans on the team. In fact, one of our own contributors called for a youth movement after Saturday’s double-overtime loss to BYU.
According to Jeremy Pruitt, that movement could be happening over the next few weeks.
Pruitt met with the media on Monday for his weekly press conference, and one of the topics he discussed was playing more of the younger players on the roster. Tennessee has already played a lot of younger players through two weeks, and Pruitt expects that number to grow as the season continues on, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
“Defensively, to me, there was lots of improvement (from Week 1), and it’s going to continue to be that way based off the players we have,” Pruitt said on Monday. “They’re going to continue to gain experience. Each week, you’ll probably see a couple of younger guys that will each play more as the weeks go on.”
On defense, the two most notable younger players who have seen a lot of snaps through the first two games have been linebacker Henry To’oto’o and cornerback Warren Burrell. Both To’oto’o and Burrell have started the Vols’ first two games this year, and To’oto’o especially has shined. Through two games, To’oto’o already has 15 tackles, a tackle for loss, and a quarterback hurry. Burrell has been inconsistent, but he’s totaled seven tackles through his first two starts as a true freshman.
Other freshmen, such as Quavaris Crouch and Roman Harrison, have also seen some playing time on defense. Neither Crouch nor Harrison have recorded a tackle for UT yet, but both got on the stat sheet on Saturday against BYU. Crouch picked up two quarterback hurries and broke up a pass while Harrison hurried the quarterback once.
Offensively, Tennessee has started freshman Wanya Morris along the offensive line, and running back Eric Gray has been a significant contributor with the offense. Darnell Wright has also played a lot of snaps along the offensive line with Morris.
But the Vols have several more freshmen and second-year players who have yet to play or who have played sparingly in 2019 so far. Pruitt expects to see a lot of them — especially the players from the 2019 signing class — to see more of the field in the coming weeks.
“We’ve got lots of young guys in our program that maybe wasn’t ready to play the first game, might not have been ready to play the second game,” Pruitt explained. “We had some guys that played that wasn’t ready in the first game or second game, but we had to play them. That’s kinda where we are as a program. There’s lots of opportunity here. We’ll continue to play some young guys. We’ll play more and more guys as the year goes.
“All these guys that we signed in this last class, I think all of them have lots of potential to be really good football players. But every one of them were better players their senior year of high school than their freshman year. That’ll be the same way at Tennessee. They’re going to continue to grow, develop, improve as football players as we go.”
Just because a freshman such as Ramel Keyton, Elijah Simmons, Jackson Lowe, Aaron Beasley, Roman Harrison, Tyus Fields, or Jaylen McCollough haven’t played much or at all in the first two weeks doesn’t mean they won’t carve out roles by the time Tennessee is in the thick of their SEC schedule. That goes for second-year players such as Cedric Tillman, Jacob Warren, J.J. Peterson, Kurott Garland, and others as well.
As long as those players continue to develop and absorb their respective playbooks as the season goes on, they should see the field more and more.
One reason some of the freshmen on UT’s roster have gotten more playing time than others is because those freshmen were with the Vols during spring practices. That’s not the case for Henry To’oto’o, who joined Tennessee over the summer, but it’s true for Wanya Morris, Warren Burrell, and Eric Gray.
“Wanya (Morris) was here during the spring. Warren Burrell was here during the spring and got to participate in all the practices. Quavaris Crouch was here in the spring, but he practiced at inside linebacker, and based on depth issues and trying to figure a way to get our best 11 on the field, we moved him down to outside linebacker. It helps to get those extra 15 practices, and I think it shows with those guys,” Pruitt stated. “Eric Gray was here, but he didn’t participate and practice, but he got the mental reps, so he’s a little further along.
“Some of the other guys who weren’t here in the spring, you can see it’s about that time with where those 15 extra practices (in the spring) and where we are in the season, some of these other guys are starting to be able to contribute, which will provide us with some depth.”
Pruitt has said time and time again that depth is one of the biggest issues with the 2019 Vols, but it may just be a matter of time and development from some of the younger players for that to get fixed.
Tennessee has already started or had to get significant snaps from over a dozen first and second-year players through the first two weeks of the season. As the younger players continue to progress and learn their respective positions, that number will only grow.
The Vols have a high ceiling based off potential according to Pruitt, but he also recognizes that because that ceiling is propped up mostly by the younger players on his roster, it will take a while to reach that potential.
Until then, expect to see more and more young players get more and more snaps.
“We’ve got some very good young prospects on offense, and they’re going to continue as we go through this season to do it the right way, to work at practice to create the right habits, and we’re going to improve on both sides of the ball,” Pruitt stated. “The problem is, so is everybody else. Everybody else is doing the same thing we’re doing.
‘We’ve got a long ways before we can hit our ceiling based off our football team.”