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 Oak Ridge, Tennessee product Darrel Middleton.
In order to be successful defensively at any level of football, a team must be able to stop the run and rush the passer. Teams in college football are throwing the rock more often and with greater success than ever before. The emergence of 7 on 7 leagues has allowed QBs and WRs to hone their skills in an environment that is conducive to them having success in the passing game. That being said, applying pressure on opposing QBs is paramount to a defense getting off the field and playing winning football. Alabama led the SEC in sacks (42) and was second in the league in interceptions (14), and ranked tenth nationally in total sacks. Defenses that are able to stop the run also have greater overall success. Mississippi State led the SEC and was second nationally in run defense, holding opponents to 95 rushing yards per game.
The 2018 version of Tennessee struggled defensively. They ranked 49th nationally and 9th in the SEC in total defense, allowing 377 yards per game. The Vols were 52nd in the NCAA in rushing yards at 154.5 yards per game, and 67th in total sacks, and 60th in pass defense. All of these factors led to the 5-7 record that UT had last season. Of course, there is always a learning curve with a new coaching staff. The defense also switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base defense, which may not seem like much to the casual fan, but is a large change in assignment, technique and defensive philosophy. Both of these factors led to the Vols defense playing sub par at times during the 2018 season.
The game of football is won “in the trenches”, along the defensive and offensive lines. The Vols started three seniors along the defensive line in 2018. While this wealth of experience would typically correlate into having great success defensively, the defensive linemen that played along the front last season were not well suited to play 3-4 defensive line. The players that were along the defensive front in 2018 gave their all, but were undersized to play 3-4 DL. That being said, defensive linemen would obviously be a point of emphasis in the 2019 recruiting cycle. The coaching staff was able to net several defensive line prospects, including Oak Ridge, TN product Darel Middleton.
Middleton is a composite 3 star defensive tackle (according to 247 Sports), who most recently played at East Mississippi Community College (of Last Chance U fame). Darel took a somewhat unorthodox route to Rocky Top. Originally committed to the Vols in 2016, Middleton enrolled at Mississippi Gulf Coast C.C. to improve his academics, then transferred to EMCC and was a big part of their 2018 national championship team. Tennessee was able to snag him over offers from Florida, Kentucky, Georgia, and Florida Atlantic.
Middleton is listed at 6’7” 290 on the EMCC football roster. He has incredible quickness for a player his size, and also lined up at tight end and even wide receiver while in high school. His length allows him to separate from offensive linemen and shed blocks to make plays, often in the opponent’s backfield. He has the power to toss offensive linemen aside, and the speed to chase down plays that run away from him. His quickness is a great asset in his rushing the passer, as is his long frame. For a 6’7” man, he plays low and doesn’t get driven out on run plays. Middleton has the size and power to control blockers at the point of attack and eat up double teams, allowing the linebackers to roam free and make plays. But, he also has the ability to make plays himself, something Vols d-line coach Tracy Rocker has made a point of emphasis during spring practice. While at EMCC, he played a 3 tech defensive tackle in their base 4-3 scheme, and a 4 tech head-up defensive end in their 3-4 package, which is what he will more than likely play for the Vols. With his height, he has the potential to add another 15-20 pounds of muscle while being under a top college football strength and conditioning program. A 6’7” 300+ pound man-child lined up along the defensive line would certainly give opposing offensive linemen nightmares.
Games are won and lost along the offensive and defensive lines, especially in SEC play. Having defensive linemen that can not only eat up and control blockers, but also penetrate the backfield and make plays, along with applying pressure on the passer, is key to being successful. The Vols graduated all three starting d-linemen from the 2018 season. The Tennessee coaching staff made it a point of emphasis during the 2019 recruiting cycle to find players that could make an immediate impact this fall. They were able to get several JUCO transfers over the past couple of years, including Darel Middleton. Darel has the ability to be a day one contributor or even starter for Tracy Rocker along the defensive line. How he plays and develops, along with the other d-line recruits will go a long way in determining on how well the defense and team as a whole performs during the 2019 season.