Vols sophomore cornerback Bryce Thompson has been suspended indefinitely while Daniel Bituli is out. Can Tennessee football rely on two Volunteers freshmen?
In 2018, Tennessee football turned to two freshmen four-star athletes to become starters at cornerback in Bryce Thompson and Alontae Taylor. Both were very effective, and Thompson became a freshman All-American with three picks.
On Saturday, the Vols’ defense may be turning to two true freshmen again who were four-star commitments. And ironically, one of them could be replacing Thompson, who is suspended indefinitely and might be gone permanently due to a legal issue. The other is replacing Daniel Bituli, who is out 10 to 17 days to clean up a minor injury.
But given the offseason hype surrounding these freshmen, there is no reason they shouldn’t be ready to go against the Georgia State Panthers. Otherwise, Jeremy Pruitt and his staff have been blatantly dishonest with the public from the start.
In place of Bituli is four-star California linebacker Henry To’oto’o. According to the depth chart, he is competing with Shanon Reid and Will Ignont to start at that other spot alongside Bituli this year. With Bituli out, though, then two of those three guys will likely start, and given Ignont’s experience, it likely comes down to To’oto’o and Reid.
We’re already hearing a lot of talk touting To’oTo’o, as Pruitt said early on that he could direct the defense and call the plays. That’s a huge compliment for the 6’2″ 232-pound freshman. And if it’s the case, then he will have a great first test against a Shawn Elliott-offense based in Steve Spurrier’s system but run by a mobile quarterback in Dan Ellington.
When it comes to replacing Thompson, the work is a little bit more long-term. But, again, if Pruitt has been honest about Warren Burrell, a four-star cornerback who arrived in fall camp, then it shouldn’t be any problem.
Pruitt touted Burrell early on in August, according to reports, and implied he was pushing Taylor and Thompson for a starting job before everything happened. If Pruitt had any semblance of honesty there, it will show on Saturday against a high-powered passing attack.
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Elsewhere at defensive back, Tennessee football is set. We already know of Alontae Taylor starting at the other cornerback spot and Nigel Warrior starting at safety. Trevon Flowers starting at the other safety spot was expected, and Shawn Shamburger is likely to play nickel with Baylen Buchanan hurt.
That other cornerback slot, though, was the question. And if Shamburger is locked in at nickel, the only guy who has drawn any offseason attention at the position is Burrell. So he has expectations now just to step up in this game but to step up for the whole season.
Despite securing a recruiting class outside of the top 10, Tennessee football was in the top 15 this past year. And Jeremy Pruitt targeted specific players to improve his depth. Some of those freshmen to provide that depth are about to be tested early on.
Burrell and To’oTo’o have generated lots of offseason hype. Combine them with a first-year defensive coordinator in Derrick Ansley, and there’s no telling what the Vols may have on Saturday. But once again, they will be turning to freshmen to help build their program.