Tennessee Coach Jeremy Pruitt has never been one to shy away from playing talented freshmen. A firm believer that talent trumps experience, Pruitt remarked as much on the eve of the 2018 Tennessee season when he said, “I don’t think at the coin toss they’re going to ask everybody’s age.” That’s a good thing, too, since the Vols find two true freshmen in Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson roaming opposite sides of the Tennessee secondary. Though the returns on Pruitt’s investment in the young corners remain in the infancy stages, the two talented newcomers have more than held their own on a defense mightily improved from just a year ago.
Two Big Pickups
Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson have a lot in common. For starters, a combination of their last names has the sound of a burgeoning law firm. The two possess similar measurables with heights hovering around six feet and yet college-ready builds of the 180s, and they both did a little bit of everything for their respective high school teams’ – Taylor a wide receiver/quarterback and Thompson a wide receiver/running back. More than anything else, though, is the bond shared by their rather circuitous journeys to Tennessee.
For the homegrown Taylor, his future appeared set after an early commitment to Tennessee and coach Butch Jones in June of 2016. The events of the next 18 months proved otherwise. The swiss army knife of a playmaker out of Coffee County Central High School in Manchester, Tenn., watched his stock among college programs rise in 2017 while Volunteers football fell to its worst record (4-8) in the history of the program. After Butch Jones lost his job in November, Taylor re-opened his recruitment and found himself a wanted man to the tune of recruitment pitches from heavyweight programs and coaches at Georgia, Alabama, and Ohio State.
In a strange twist of fate, the talented athlete originally intended to commit to the Georgia Bulldogs. He made multiple phone calls to the Georgia staff just days after he re-opened his recruitment — all of which went unanswered. By the time he heard from Georgia coach Kirby Smart and his staff, he opted for more time to evaluate his future. After a highly publicized coaching search fiasco ended with the hiring of Jeremy Pruitt, the former Alabama defensive coordinator set his sights on a player he previously recruited to the Crimson Tide. Pruitt’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed by Taylor, who recommitted to Tennessee in December. He gave Pruitt his first commitment as coach and, more importantly, a big-time recruiting victory over fellow SEC rivals Georgia and Alabama. His whirlwind recruitment officially over, Taylor signed a national letter of intent in the early signing period and enrolled in school at Tennessee just a few weeks later.
While a local kid’s decision to sign with the state’s flagship university should never come as a total surprise, the same can’t be said for Bryce Thompson’s late arrival to Rocky Top. The dynamic athlete out of South Carolina led Dutch Fork High School to back-to-back state championships, accounting for nearly 2,000 total yards his senior year to go with 38 total touchdowns. His exploits on the field caused his high school coach Tom Knotts to remark, “He’s the best player [I’ve] coached.”
On December 13, Thompson committed to Coach Will Muschamp and the South Carolina Gamecocks. When eligibility questions arose over his academics, Thompson didn’t sign with the Gamecocks on National Signing Day. All indications pointed to South Carolina holding the last spot in their 2018 signing class open so that Thompson could take care of unfinished business in the classroom, but that all changed when the Gamecocks signed graduate transfer Nick Harvey from Texas A&M. Led by Pruitt and a revamped Vols coaching staff, the Vols put on the full-court press. Thompson visited the Tennessee campus multiple times throughout the spring. On May 30, Thompson announced his enrollment at Tennessee just days before the start of the first session of summer school. In just five months on the job, a defensive-oriented, first-time head coach had landed two of the nation’s best athletes. With a UT roster sorely in need of talent in the secondary, the story of which side of the ball Taylor and Thompson would play was all but written.
The Two T’s Find a Home in the Secondary
When asked about Taylor and Thompson at SEC Media Days on the eve of the 2018 season, Pruitt’s enthusiasm about their potential was clear. “Both of those guys are really good athletes, they have good ball skills [and] can run.” When the Vols summer camp opened, the two newcomers unsurprisingly started their collegiate careers in the Tennessee secondary. It didn’t take long for Taylor to generate buzz among the Volunteer fanbase, as he garnered first team reps with the starting defense and picked off quarterbacks Jarrett Guarantano and Keller Chryst in a practice open to the media. His play in fall camp earned him a starting nod against Tennessee’s Week 1 opponent – West Virginia led by one of the top returning quarterbacks in the country in Will Grier. He became the first true freshman to start at Tennessee since current Pittsburgh Steeler Cameron Sutton did so in 2013. Although not in the starting lineup, Thompson earned himself plenty of snaps in the season opener as well. Both players took their lumps against one of the better wide receiver units in the country, but Taylor managed to show up on special teams with a blocked punt.
Not to be overshadowed, Thompson followed up Week One with what Pruitt described as a great week of practice. His efforts in practice carried over to the game, where he finished with an impressive stat-line of 4 tackles, two for loss, a pass break-up and an interception returned for 21 yards. He was named the Week 2 SEC Freshman of the Week. After week three, Thompson’s play continued to fetch praise. According to Pro Football Focus’s (PFF) college division, Thompson graded out at #8 on the list of Top 10 Freshmen three weeks into the season and landed on PFF’s list of SEC Defensive Team of the Week in back-to-back weeks.
Over the coming weeks, the two talented true freshmen would reward Pruitt’s faith in their abilities. In Tennessee’s upset win over Auburn – a win that ended the Vols winless streak in conference play (0-11) – Thompson picked off a pass and Taylor recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown. After six games, PFF once again lauded the work of the talented freshman – this time listing Alontae Taylor at #6 on the list of Power-5 Corners who have allowed the fewest receiving yards.
No cornerbacks have limited receivers in coverage from the Power-5 quite like these guys – led by Michigan CB David Long pic.twitter.com/EJRRvKnHS7
— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 15, 2018
While excellent individually, the combination of Taylor and Thompson’s stellar play is a significant reason why Tennessee’s defense has shown marked improvement from a year ago. Tennessee’s current team defense ranks a respectable 34th in the country through six games, a year after the 2017 Volunteer defense finished 79th. Although Tennessee’s pass defense through six games (36th) is significantly higher than last year’s squad (4th overall), this statistic is skewered based on the 2017 Vols’ historically bad rushing defense – a defense that surrendered 251.3 yards per game for a ranking of 126th out of 130 FBS 1-A teams. A woefully inept run defense meant opponents naturally refrained from a significant number of passing attempts. Take the 2017 Missouri game in which Tigers quarterbacks threw the ball a combined 30 times in relation to 53 rushes for 433 yards, or the 2018 LSU game where the Tigers had 15 throws for 81 yards compared to 43 rushes for 200 yards.
|Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson Statistics Through Six Games of ‘18 Season|
|Player||Games Played||Tackles||Passes Defended||Turnovers|
|A. Taylor||6||21 (1 TFL)||1||2 (2 FF; 1 TD)|
|B. Thompson||5||19 (2 TFL)||3||3 (2 INTs/FF)|
Young Corners Should Give Vols Fans Hope for a Bright Future
Widely hailed as a defensive mastermind, Jeremy Pruitt’s fingerprints can be found on the 2018 Tennessee defense and the play of its young corners. A past mentor and coach to defensive stars across the NFL (the likes of Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey, Rams cornerback Lamarcus Joyner, Rams linebacker Mark Barron, and Jaguars linebacker Telvin Smith just to name a few), the early returns on Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson should come as no surprise. But the NFL can wait for another day, as the play of the two young Volunteer corners could go a long way towards getting a once proud program back to its rightful place among college football’s nationally relevant. As Alontae Taylor proudly proclaimed into the camera after his big play in an upset win over Auburn, the right now is all about SETTING THE STANDARD.
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) October 14, 2018
[Featured Image: 247Sports/News Sentinel]