There is no secret how important the 2019 recruiting class is to Jeremy Pruitt and the Tennessee Volunteers. In multiple interviews this season, Pruitt referenced needing to get his own guys into the program before they could compete at the level they wanted. While Pruitt and Company recruited far better than anticipated during their brief time with the Vols in the 2018 cycle, the combination of a 4-8 season and the handicaps resulting from an odyssey of a coaching search clearly hampered them. The 2019 class represents Jeremy Pruitt’s first class at Tennessee in which he and his staff have had a full year to assemble the players they want. Due to the talent of these players and the emphasis Pruitt has placed on wanting to get his own players into the program, expect to see the young men from this class on the field early and often. Here's an idea of what to expect on the field through Spring Ball and into the fall. We continue our Player Profile series by looking at Leesburg, Georgia product Aubrey Solomon.
Last season the Vols had three seniors starting on the defensive line, and while the group played better than initially anticipated, all three seniors were playing a bit out of position in the 3-4 scheme that Jeremy Pruitt and Kevin Sherrer installed. The 3-4 typically requires larger bodies on the defensive line to be successful. This meant that with all three starters and a key rotational player gone to graduation, the Vols’ new staff needed multiple players in this class to fit in and play on the defensive line immediately. Size and strength are so imperative for defensive linemen in a 3-4 because the scheme relies on the linebackers being able to run sideline to sideline to make plays. The defensive linemen primarily engage blockers, multiple blockers ideally, to allow the linebackers to read and react to the ball and the outside linebackers to serve as the primary pass rushers. This isn’t to say that 3-4 defensive linemen are just occupying space, they have to punish opponents should they decide to single block them. Defensive Ends for a 3-4 scheme can be difficult to find due to the mix of size and strength required to hold up against the run and the hand technique and quickness required to rush the passer. That said, Defensive Line Coach Tracy Rocker and new Defensive Coordinator Derrick Ansley have to be excited, as the Vols have singed a young man as a transfer from Michigan that precisely fits the role in former five-star Lee County High School defensive lineman Aubrey Solomon.
Solomon arrives in Knoxville after two seasons in Ann Arbor where he was a disruptive force for the Wolverines. Michigan Head Coach Jim Harbaugh and Defensive Coordinator Don Brown run a very unique, multiple defense with the Wolverines, one that has proven to be exceptionally effective. Brown calls a lot of multiple front defenses with players in the front seven often being asked to play in more than one position. At times, Brown had Solomon lining up at every position in both a three and four man front for Michigan, at times having him command double teams to free up linebackers to make plays with favorable matchups, while at other times, the hope was for Solomon to use his exceptional talent to create chaos for opponents. Solomon was a chess piece for Brown, not always a starter, but usually in the deep rotation Michigan used in the front seven every game. Solomon was regularly a disruptive force for the Wolverines, his versatility in a multiple defense getting him more snaps than even his exceptional talent would have alone. Solomon didn’t record a high amount of statistics at Michigan, but that often wasn’t his job. Brown often tasked Solomon with blowing up an opponent’s blocking scheme or driving an offensive lineman into the backfield to kill a play. Solomon used his speed to beat linemen that failed to anticipate his quickness, and though he may not have made a tackle, he wrecked the play and it’s timing, allowing his linebackers to clean up the mess. Arriving in Knoxville, Solomon will not see his job description change in Derrick Ansley’s defense. In fact, the biggest change that he is likely to see will be that he should be a full-time starter for the Vols.
Solomon brings a rare combination of body type and athleticism to the table. At 6 feet 5 inches tall and 305 pounds, Solomon certainly looks the part of a potential 3-4 nose tackle. Indeed, he certainly has the requisite strength to hold up on the inside of the defense, commanding a double team every play and clogging up the inside of the offensive. However, that is only a part of his game. Jeremy Pruitt has recruited an exceptional amount of size since he arrived at Tennessee, but especially in his 2019 recruiting class. To that end, Pruitt sees Solomon as someone that could play the nose the for the Vols, but primarily as an end in their base three-man front. At over 300 pounds, Solomon is a massive defensive end, even in a 3-4 scheme, but he can play the position as an impact performer. Solomon moves shockingly well for his size. He has an explosive first step, excellent closing speed, enough agility and acceleration to turn the corner on an offensive tackle on a speed rush, and an affinity for moving laterally through blockers to find his way to the football. At his best, Solomon shows excellent technique with his hands, and when he is at his best, he can look almost unblockable. Solomon has the size and strength as an end to command a double team and still stone wall his blockers, allowing his linebackers to flow in and make a play. He can also drive top flight tackles into their own backfield or shove them back with a strong hand punch before exploiting the space he created with his strength to explode into the backfield with his quickness. Surrounded by blockers, Solomon moves through the chaos around him with footwork that looks more akin to a linebacker. He uses his hands to create space between himself and the offensive lineman, his strength to hold the gap, and then his quickness to read the play, rip free of a blocker, and close to the football. Solomon is a player that Tennessee will be able to plug in anywhere along their defensive line and see immediate results whether he is inside in a four-man front or playing anywhere along a three-man front.
The issue with the rising Junior is when he will be able to play for Tennessee. Currently, Solomon could still sit through a redshirt season, meaning that even if the NCAA has Solomon sit out a year after transferring, the Vols would have two seasons left for him to play. As things stand, there has not been an official answer given as to whether Solomon will be eligible to play this year for Tennessee or not, though the Tennessee coaches have stated several times that they feel confident that Solomon will be available this fall. Should he be granted the waiver to play in 2019, Solomon would be penciled in as an immediate starter for the Vols. He showed flashes of what he was capable of bringing to Tennessee’s defense in the Orange and White Game, where he made several tackles and disrupted many more plays. He has the body type that Pruitt and Ansley covet up front, with a speed that is hard to find with that frame. As he was at Michigan, Solomon would become a chess piece for Ansley to utilize in whatever front is called, as he is a matchup nightmare for an offensive line.
The explosive, disruptive play that Solomon provides is something that was often missing from the Volunteer defensive line last season, and his skillset would provide instant help against the run and in pass rushing situations. When paired with rising senior Emmit Gooden and incoming JUCO players Savion Williams and Darrel Middleton, Solomon is an explosive component in a new-look Tennessee defensive line that is dramatically bigger, stronger, and quite possibly even faster than the 2018 version. He is a player that would be able to play in every situation for the Vols, rarely coming off the field. Solomon ticks every box his coaches want, and his quiet, determined, work-focused attitude since arriving on Rocky Top has already earned the respect of his teammates. If he is granted a waiver, he gives the Vols a quality starter up front, creates quality depth on the line behind him, and could be the catalyst for a group of first year starters to be one of the strengths of the entire Volunteer team. Make no mistake, securing Solomon via the transfer market was a huge get for Pruitt and Company, and if he plays this season, this defensive line unit will be one that can create problems for every opponent the Vols face.