After struggling to land blue chip talent on the defensive side of the ball for much of the 2022 recruiting cycle, Josh Heupel and his staff closed their first full recruiting class in Knoxville. The Vols landed three four-star defenders in November and December including edge rushers James Pearce Jr. and Joshua Josephs.
Both Pearce and Josephs enrolled at Tennessee in June and are going through their first fall camps.
“We got two young guys in Joshua Josephs and James Pearce Jr,” Tennessee outside linebackers coach Mike Ekeler said Wednesday. “Josh is really coming along and so is James, but James is a little more raw. Josh is a little more seasoned in a certain sense, but both of those guys have just an incredible amount of talent and unbelievable work ethic.”
Josephs, a Georgia native, and Pearce Jr., a North Carolina native, are both clearly talented. Pearce is 6-foot-5 and Josephs is 6-foot-3 and have the frame and long arms to be high-level pass rushers in the SEC.
However, neither were early enrollees and both are making a major jump in playing along the line of scrimmage in the SEC compared to the high school ranks.
“Great kids just figuring it out,” Ekeler said. “They’re true freshmen, they just got here. The sky is the limit for them. If they stay the course, they keep busting their tail and you are talking about two guys that are six-foot-five coming off the edge, and they can flat out go. They got great instincts and love to play the game, so beyond excited.”
While both are clearly talented, Pearce and Josephs look like freshmen on Haslam (practice) Field. Josephs is 221 pounds and Pearce is 220 pounds. At their position, both are thin and will likely put on 20-25 pounds over the course of their college careers.
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The good news for Tennessee is that they won’t have to rely on either of the freshman pass rushers to play a massive role this season. Byron Young is a Preseason First Team All-SEC selection and defensive end Tyler Baron will start opposite of Young.
The Vols won’t have to play either player unless they’re ready, a luxury they haven’t been afforded every season.
“Managing the expectations,” Ekeler said. “Those guys, I’ve told them both, they have to think of themselves as seniors. Those seniors out here, they expect that out of them. They’re not freshmen. They got to go out and when they step on the field, they got to execute. They got to execute at a championship level and if they can’t do that, then they aren’t going to be out there. That’s a challenge. To get them to that level, to get them to that point where they can go out and coach (defensive coordinator) Tim Banks feels comfortable about putting them in.”
The good news for Pearce and Josephs is that there’s a real path to playing time. While Tennessee’s starting edge rushers are set in stone, there’s plenty of opportunities behind them.
Roman Harrison is back for his senior season but has tallied just five career sacks in three seasons and the Vols don’t return any other edge rushers with an abundance of experience.
If either can prove themselves, there’s opportunities for Pearce and Josephs to play this fall. What can they do to earn their coach’s trust besides practice well?
“They are going to play on special teams for us too, early,” Ekeler said. “We’ll get them rocking and rolling out there and as the season goes you should see their development and you should see their roles probably increasing.”
With Tennessee’s secondary poised to be one of the team’s weakest spots, a strong pass rush would go a long way to bolstering the Vols’ defense. The burden for that pass rush growth falls on veterans like Baron and Young, but the emergence of either freshman would provide strong depth.