Tennessee Vols Early Signing Day: Defensive Player Capsules

AARON BEASLEY, 6’1″, 210 SAFETY/ATHLETE, FRANKLIN, GA (HEARD COUNTY HS) 

Tennessee needs secondary help, and the Vols got it in a big way during early signing period, starting with Georgia hard-hitting safety Aaron Beasley. The versatile athlete also could play running back for the Vols, but he’s expected to stick on the back level of the defense. 

Beasley looks like an ideal Pruitt defender, blessed with excellent size and athleticism. His game isn’t speed, but he has good ball skills and a nose for the ball. He also arrives with violence when he gets there. Beasley had offers from teams such as Florida, Florida State, Miami, Auburn, Nebraska and others but built a strong relationship with safeties coach Charles Kelly and winds up in orange.

Tennessee is glad he did. With Nigel Warrior entering his final season, the Vols need to re-load on the back end, and Beasley will be a good pickup to go along with Jaylen McCollough. UT will have a couple of Georgia boys anchoring that level.

WARREN BURRELL, 6’0″, 170 CORNERBACK, SUWANEE, GA (NORTH GWINNETT HS)

Speaking of the Peach State, it was very good to UT in this cycle, and there’s no place that’s more evident than in the defensive backfield. The Vols won a big recruiting battle against SEC East foes when Warren Burrell chose to come to Knoxville rather than go to Florida or South Carolina. That’s a big deal considering both schools beat UT on the field and in good DBs’ living rooms the past year (Jaydon Hill to UF and Jaycee Horn to USCe). 

Burrell is blessed with long arms and looks great going after the football. He is a glider who intercepted a lot of balls as a senior at a quality high school program at North Gwinnett. It’s not out of the realm of possibility he could wind up a safety, but Burrell’s instincts will help him start his career at cornerback, and he could be a player who slides into the rotation rather quickly if he picks things up. 

He’s a smart guy who will mesh well with the current guys and learn under Pruitt’s tutelage.

QUAVARIS CROUCH, 6’2″, 230 OUTSIDE LINEBACKER/RUNNING BACK, CHARLOTTE, NC (HARDING UNIVERSITY SCHOOL)

Wanya Morris was a huge pickup. Darnell Wright would be massive if he comes to Knoxville. Eric Gray is going to have a lot of flash moments for UT. But it’s hard not to be excited about the star the Vols added on Friday in elite athlete Quavaris Crouch.

You’ve got to remember that the North Carolina product was the top-ranked overall player in the nation according to Rivals.com early in the summer before a hip injury kept him out of his entire senior season. He dropped to a 4-star player, but when he’s healthy, there are few players in the nation who can go beastmode like he can. Crouch was one of the Vols’ top targets from the time Pruitt stepped on campus, and ace recruiter Brian Niedermeyer closed the deal.

For long periods during his recruitment, it looked like Clemson or perhaps Michigan would be his destination, but the Vols stayed relentless and kept building that relationship with him, and it paid off.

Crouch is the kind of player who can help solidify either side of the ball. He’s expressed interest in playing outside linebacker, and the Vols need him there, so he’ll play there for the most part. But he’s also an elite power runner who could get some carries at running back, a spot a lot of teams wanted him to play. Could he play both sides? Who knows? The good news is he’ll be playing for the Vols. He’s just the kind of player UT needs to get “back.”

TYUS FIELDS, 5’10”, 190 CORNERBACK, CORNELIUS, NC (WILLIAM AMOS HOUGH HS)

Though Tyus Fields doesn’t have the long, lanky frame that is typical of a Pruitt-coached defensive back, he has a ton of intangibles that made the Vols go after him hard. They weren’t the only ones, either. UT pulled him over Clemson (where his brother plays), North Carolina, Florida State, North Carolina State and others. 

Pruitt said at his early signing period that Fields is a versatile defender who can play the Star, a cornerback spot or safety. He has great instincts, is a good coverage guy and is a hard-hitter, especially for his size. Fields is one of the highest-rated commitments in UT’s class, and he’s going to be a player who is hard to keep off the field.

With a lot of the tall, lanky DBs the Vols have, Fields is a different kind of player who is going to be a playmaker at a very early stage of UT’s career. He’s a big get for this regime.

ROMAN HARRISON, 6’2″, 235 WEAK-SIDE DEFENSIVE END/OUTSIDE LINEBACKER, BAINBRIDGE, GA (BAINBRIDGE HS)

Harrison is a South Georgia kid who doesn’t play in a heavily recruited area, but that didn’t stop UT from identifying him and signing him early. They may have found one of the biggest steals of the class. Once analysts watched him play, they made him a 4-star player, and he led Bainbridge to the state championship game.

Harrison is a pass-rushing freak who is going to play outside linebacker in Knoxville even though he played nose guard on his high school team. He played there because his coach said he was the biggest kid on the team, and all he did was lead his program to the state title at that position. He’s a guy who is an alpha and a leader, and the Vols are going to benefit from his ability early. A lot of people don’t talk about him, but he’s one of my favorite players in this entire class.

Now with Harrison, Crouch and JJ Peterson at linebacker and with Jeremy Banks moving there full-time, Tennessee is finally going to be athletic enough on the second level to minimize the big plays. It’s about to be an exciting group to watch, and Harrison is going to be right in the thick of things quickly.

JAYLEN MCCOLLOUGH, 6’0″, 194 SAFETY, POWDER SPRINGS, GA (HILLGROVE HS)

Perhaps one of the two most talented prospects on the defensive side of the ball in UT’s class, McCollough was a player the Vols identified early in the cycle. They were thrilled to close the deal on him. Florida State, Alabama, Auburn, Florida, South Carolina and others really wanted him, but he decided to come to Knoxville.

It’s said often, but McCollough has the talent and ability to step in and play right away. He’s an athlete who played a lot both ways for a good high school program, and Pruitt had a relationship with him for many years.

McCollough is the perfect blend of coverage skills and physicality that makes a good safety. He reminds me a lot of Stephon Gilmore, who Tennessee tried to sway to Knoxville but who wound up a star at South Carolina and has played a long time in the NFL. He’s that good, and he can play for a UT team that needs difference-makers right away.

It’s going to be a big deal if the Vols can close the deal on commitment Anthony Harris, who chose not to sign in the early period. If he does, McCollough, Harris and Beasley is an awesome trio who can help fortify the safety corps.

DAREL MIDDLETON, 6’7″, 290 DEFENSIVE LINEMAN, SCOOBA, MS/OAK RIDGE, TN (EAST MISSISSIPPI CC)

Tennessee fans who follow the program and especially recruiting will remember Darel Middleton’s name. Also, high school football fans in East Tennessee will, too. 

Middleton was once an Oak Ridge High School star tight end and defensive end who committed to the Vols as an underclassman before immaturity and off-the-field issues led to his downfall. He got his grades and his life together, went to JUCO and recommitted to Tennessee earlier this year. Then, he went out and struggled during his football season for East Mississippi.

So, what kind of player is the Vols getting? 

It’s unclear. He is a massive body at 6’7″, 290 pounds, and Tennessee simply doesn’t have anybody with that size and athleticism on its roster. But if he doesn’t produce, what does it matter? Maybe he will thrive being back home under the tutelage of Pruitt, Tracy Rocker and Co. Maybe the bright lights of Last Chance U didn’t bring out the best in him.

One thing is certain: The Vols need beef, and they desperately need him to at the very least be a rotational player since they’re losing three seniors. He may be one of the most important players in this class. It’s time for him to live up to his ability and potential.

ELIJAH SIMMONS, 6’0″, 350 DEFENSIVE TACKLE, NASHVILLE, TN (PEARL COHN HS)

Speaking of big dudes, it’s hard to get bigger than tree-fiddy. That’s where Pearl Cohn nose tackle Elijah Simmons currently sits, and Pruitt wants him to drop 25 of those pounds before getting to Knoxville. But that’s a nice problem for the Vols to have considering how much beef they need on the defensive front.

What Simmons has in girth, he doesn’t lose in athleticism. There were videos surfacing this week of him dunking a basketball. That’s a big, healthy man to be doing things like that. The Vols desperately need him to be an instant-impact player. When UT saw him at camp, the Vols virtually offered him on the spot.

It’s surprising Simmons didn’t have a lot of high-level offers, but those never came. Maybe it was because he was locked in with UT once he committed, but it’s probably because he is on the smallish size height-wise when it comes to defensive linemen. If he’d been 6’2″, everybody in the nation would have offered. He’s not, and though he isn’t going to be much of a threat batting down balls at the line of scrimmage, he can be the plug and the anchor UT needs in the middle of that 3-4 defense.

Does he need a year in the strength and conditioning program? It’s unclear, but one thing that is easy to see is that he’s a massive mammal, and there was no wavering on either side. Simmons is somebody UT needed and wanted, and he stuck with his pledge. He is a big piece of the defense moving forward.

SAVION WILLIAMS, 6’4″, 300 DEFENSIVE TACKLE, SCRANTON, PA (LACKAWANNA CC)

One of the biggest commitments for the Vols in this cycle was Williams, who needs to be able to step right in and at least be a rotational guy. UT hopes he can be a starter and a difference-maker. Williams has the size and versatility to be able to play inside or out in a 3-4 scheme, but it’s probable he’ll be a 3-4 defensive end. 

Williams has a lot of power at the point of attack and is a developed player who looks tailor-made to come in and get a lot of meaningful reps. His versatility will help considerably, and though he’s 6’4″, he possesses good bend and can have a low center of gravity. This is a player who is probably a little more advanced at this stage than Emmit Gooden, and Tennessee can expect that he’ll be a big part of the defense right away.

Georgia, West Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina State and others really wanted Williams, but he committed to Tennessee fairly quickly after visiting and stayed strong throughout the process. He’s a guy who saw immediate playing time, and the Vols certainly have that to offer. He should be an important player.

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