At the beginning of fall camp, there was a lot of hype and excitement around true freshman defensive tackle Elijah Simmons. The huge lineman from Pearl-Cohn High School turned heads when he signed with the Vols due to his athleticism and ability to dunk a basketball despite being 6-foot-1, 355 pounds. At the NFL Draft, three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt was impressed with Simmons’ size and demeanor as well.
Once fall camp started, Simmons was pinpointed by Vol fans as a freshman who could make an impact in 2019. After he had been labeled as one of the strongest players on UT’s roster even as a true freshman, fans were hopeful he could find a role on Tennessee’e new-look defensive line.
Nine games through the 2019 season, however, and Simmons has rarely been on the field.
So far this year, Simmons has only appeared in one game, making his Tennessee debut in the Vols’ blowout win over UT-Chattanooga. Tennessee’s defensive line has steadily improved as the year has gone along, but why didn’t Simmons play more earlier in the year when the D-line struggled more?
During his weekly appearance on the call-in show “Vol Calls,” Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt was asked about the plan he and his staff have for Simmons moving forward and why he hasn’t played up to this point.
“Every week we prepare Elijah,” Pruitt said. “Right now, he’s in a spot. He’s played in one game. He’s a guy that we feel like has got a chance to be a really good player. It’s one of the things, when you sign a man as large as Elijah is, he has a little bit of work he has to do to get ready to play at a high level in this conference, and he’s working hard to do that. I think he has a very high ceiling as a football player. He’s smart. He’s tough. He’s instinctive and has a good motor on the field.
“I mean, right now he’s on our starting goal-line defense. We just haven’t used it the last couple of weeks when he’s been in there. But he’ll be available to play.”
One of the biggest things Pruitt stressed with Simmons when he signed with the Vols was slimming down and getting into better shape. The gargantuan lineman was athletic even at his 355 pounds, but Pruitt wanted him to drop some more weight and to trim down on some of his bad weight. Simmons is listed at 340 pounds now on UT’s official roster, but it’s likely Pruitt and his staff still want Simmons to cut down some more.
Since Simmons has only appeared in one game and Tennessee only has three regular season games remaining in 2019, the freshman lineman can play in every game left on UT’s schedule and still keep his redshirt for this season thanks to the new NCAA redshirt rules implemented in 2018.
Tennessee’s main defensive line rotation as of late has consisted of Aubrey Solomon, Matthew Butler, Darel Middleton, and Greg Emerson. As Pruitt said, the Vols haven’t used their starting goal-line defense much over the last few weeks, thus the reason why Simmons hasn’t seen any playing time.
The plan with Simmons all along after fall camp was likely to try and redshirt him and use this season to work on his conditioning and to learn the defense. But there’s a good chance the freshman will see the field a little more in November, and he’ll be able to retain a year of eligibility in the process.