If you watched Tennessee play football in 2017 and you then watched Alabama’s performance in the College Football Playoff semifinal trouncing of Clemson, you know the Vols have a long way to go to get to that level.
But it’s a strong first step that UA’s defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt will be leaving to become Tennessee’s head coach, and the staff he’s built in Knoxville proves he’s serious about bringing a top-tier defense.
Now, all he needs are the players.
UT got one of those players on Saturday afternoon when 4-star outside linebacker JJ Peterson chose Tennessee over a host of other top schools — including long-time leader Alabama — during the U.S. Army All-America Game.
“Peterson is a really athletic, versatile linebacker, the type of player Tennessee is going to need to run the kind of defense Jeremy Pruitt wants to run,” GoVols247 recruiting analyst Ryan Callahan told me earlier today. “He’s capable of coming in and starting right away, or at least playing a significant role from Day One.
“It’s a huge pickup, to say the least, for Pruitt and his staff. And it’s the best example yet of the types of relationships Pruitt can build and the big-time recruiting battles he’s capable of winning. Peterson hasn’t even been to Tennessee’s campus yet, and the Vols just beat out Alabama to land him less than a month after Pruitt’s hiring. That’s the kind of addition that really sends a message.”
With Pruitt’s deep ties in Alabama and Georgia, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see UT starting pulling kids of Peterson’s ilk every year from those areas. It doesn’t hurt that the Vols’ defensive coordinator Kevin Sherrer is Georgia’s linebackers coach and a dynamic recruiter. Add Charles Kelly, Chris Rumph and Tracy Rocker to the staff, and that’s a group of defensive coaches who can make a dent on the recruiting trail.
— Ryan Callahan (@RyanCallahan247) January 6, 2018
As for Peterson, he’s an electric athlete that has the kind of speed on the second level the Vols don’t currently possess. The 6’2″, 210-pound defender from Colquitt County (Georgia) plays for legendary coach Russ Propst and was a high school teammate of current Vols Ja’Quain Blakely and Shawn Shamburger. That’s not a bad pipeline for UT to have.
Peterson is the nation’s second-ranked outside linebacker, according to 247Sports, and he has high marks in all of his agility ratings. According to his profile, his evaluation is as follows:
“When you watch Peterson, he is a blur at times between the lines. He is an outside linebacker you see make plays in space, get to the quarterback off the edge, and one that can drop into coverage and hold his own. He plays with aggression, effort and speed at all times. He has great size and he explodes through the ball carrier when he makes the tackle. He has all the traits you look for in an elite linebacker. He could play outside or inside on the next level.”
That’s huge news for a Tennessee team desperately needing playmakers to pair with studs on the defense like Nigel Warrior and Darrin Kirkland Jr., who’ve been under-coached during the Butch Jones era. The Vols lost one of those this week when Rashaan Gaulden elected to forego his senior season in orange for a shot at the NFL.
Peterson, as Callahan said, possesses the ability to start or at least contribute right away. If UT transitions to a 3-4 base package, as expected, it will need all the linebackers it can get. Guys like a healthy Kirkland will certainly be on the field. Others such as Daniel Bituli, Will Ignont, Solon Page III, Quart’e Sapp, Austin Smith, recent JUCO signee Jordan Allen, and Shanon Reid give the Vols depth at the position, but only Kirkland and Bituli are proven commodities.
Peterson is an athlete who will be difficult to keep from the field. His pledge surges UT to 16th nationally and fifth in the SEC, according to 247Sports. That’s not bad considering the Vols were in the 60s when Pruitt came on board.
This coup is the biggest of the 2018 cycle, surpassing Alontae Taylor and Dominick Wood-Anderson. DWA also had UA out front until Pruitt swept in and stole him on JUCO national signing day, so that’s two major pieces of the puzzle who are expected to step right in and contribute immediately.
Peterson’s pledge is a sign of things to come, and if the Vols can add players like Peterson’s good buddy and current Alabama commitment Quay Walker, stud cornerback Olaijah Griffin and others, this may not be such a stretch to think Tennessee could be much-improved on the defensive side of the ball in 2018.