Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt has shown he’s not afraid to play true freshmen on the defensive side of the ball, especially in the secondary. Pruitt is a defensive backs coach by trade, and he’s trusted the DBs he’s specifically recruited so far in his time at UT. Last season, the Vols started three true freshmen in the secondary early on in the year, and both Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson ended up being full-time starters at cornerback.
This year, Pruitt has again turned to freshmen on defense, starting Henry To’o To’o at inside linebacker and starting another true freshman at cornerback again. That freshman corner, Warren Burrell, was told early on in his recruitment to Tennessee that he would have the opportunity to see the field as soon as he got on campus.
“(Tennessee’s coaches) just told me I would have an opportunity,” Burrell said during a media availability on Tuesday. “That’s the thing, even in high school interviews when I was asked that question, it was always ‘they told me that I would have an opportunity.’ It’s just up to me to make the most out of it.”
Burrell joined the Vols as a three-star prospect in the 2019 signing class, and though he wasn’t the highest-rated corner in the cycle, Pruitt and his staff saw the potential in him during his high school days.
The freshman came on on strong during fall camp after a promising set of spring practices earlier in the year. Burrell was already pushing for early playing time during fall practices, but then Bryce Thompson was suspended the last weekend before Tennessee started the regular season.
Thompson’s suspension lasted three weeks, and he ended up missing Tennessee’s first three games of the 2019 season. Burrell took advantage of the vacancy Thompson left behind and was named a starter opposite Alontae Taylor in UT’s first game of the season.
Since then, Burrell has started for the Vols and has been a significant contributor in every game this season.
“It’s been kinda surreal being able to make an impact this early on. It’s a big deal,” Burrell stated. “It’s something that I don’t take for granted. No matter what level you play the sport at, football is football. So I just have to go out there and play the best of my ability and make an impact.”
Burrell said he knew pretty early on in fall camp that the opportunity would be there for him to snatch a starting role as a true freshman. Then, more and more opportunities just kept presenting themselves, and he made sure to cash in on them.
“Early on before the season really started,” Burrell responded when asked when he knew it was a possibility he could start in his first year. “More opportunities were opening up, so you just try to take advantage of every opportunity you get.”
But fall camp wasn’t the first time Burrell had a chance to show UT’s coaches what he could do. The true freshman was an early enrollee and went through practices with the team during the spring earlier this year, setting the foundation for his breakout fall session.
Being able to come in early and get used to the speed of practice, digest the playbook, and adjust to life as a college player was a big reason Burrell was able to start this fall.
“I credit a lot to that, being able to come in early and being able to understand the plays better and have more time to get adjusted,” Burrell said. “So when the season came around, you were used to the things going on. I feel like that helped me a lot.”
Burrell said he leaned on the aforementioned Taylor and Thompson when he got to Tennessee. Both cornerbacks started as true freshmen themselves last season, and both were pivotal in helping Burrell learn how to adjust to the college game and to prepare to play early on. Plus, both helped provide insight to his game. The freshman said he felt he did a lot of things well coming out of high school, but those two — as well as Tennessee’s coaches — made him realize that everything from his stance to how he moves his feet still needed plenty of improvement.
Those teaching points and a 1-3 start to the season haven’t diminished Burrell’s confidence any, though.
“My confidence is high regardless of what game we’re in,” Burrell said. “I like to go out there and play with confidence. I just like to play football.
“Confidence is one of the most important things being a DB. We play a position where everybody is watching to see if you get burned on or toasted or something like that. So confidence is something important to have.”
Burrell said he feels he’s played well so far, but he’s made “freshmen mistakes” that he needs to improve on. So far this season, Burrell has yet to intercept a pass or be credited with a pass breakup, but he has 10 tackles and has been relied on heavily to defend the pass.
With Bryce Thompson back in the fold, Burrell’s role may decrease slightly for the remainder of the season. But the true freshman has already shown a lot of ability in his first few games as a Vol, and Tennessee needs him to continue to progress to have success this season.