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. With that in mind, The All Vol Call In Show wanted to introduce you, Vol Nation, to these young men with a Player Profile series to give you an idea of what to expect on the field through Spring Ball and into the fall. The series will begin with a look at an in-state prospect, Elijah Simmons.
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. The search for added size on the line was most imperative at the Nose Tackle position for the 3-4 defense. The Nose Tackle is normally one of, if not the, largest players on the field, and serves as the anchor that the rest of a 3-4 defense is built around. Everything in the scheme relies on the Nose Tackle being big and strong enough to command at least a double team on every, single snap. An ideal 3-4 Nose Tackle possesses the strength and quickness to blow up plays on his own if he isn’t double teamed, and the strength to stonewall multiple offensive lineman if he is double teamed, effectively clogging multiple gaps by occupying blockers and freeing up linebackers to make plays. A look on the current Tennessee roster shows perhaps one candidate with the size and skills to fill the role, rising senior Emmitt Gooden. This meant that Tennessee had a priority need to fill in the middle of their defense going forward, which is precisely what they did with Nashville product Elijah Simmons.
At 6 feet tall and 350 pounds, Simmons ticks the size box Tennessee is looking for at the Nose in a big way. That said, the weight can often be misleading for many large high school athletes, as upon arriving at college steps are taken to see them cut significant weight to improve conditioning and quickness. While Simmons will be expected to lose some weight in Craig Fitzgerald’s strength and conditioning program, don’t look for it to be as drastic as many of the other players in the ’19 class at his size.
Early in the 2018 season, Simmons and his teammates from Pearl Cohn high school squared off against another Tennessee signee, four-star Guard Jackson Lampley, and his teammates from Montgomery Bell Academy, and The All Vol Call In Show was in attendance. There were a multitude of items on the scouting checklist for both young men as the game began, but a few drives into the game, one had to be added to the list for Simmons that was entirely unexpected: He played both ways at that size for the Firebirds. By the end of the game, Simmons had been off the field for only a handful of snaps due to cramps, and there were several lines under the, “He plays both ways,” bullet point on the report. That Simmons was able to play an entire game on both sides of the ball, at his size, was stunning. He did show some signs of fading very late in the game, but early in the season against a team that was able to sub regularly, that wasn’t unexpected. While Pruitt and Fitzgerald will undoubtedly test and seek to improve Simmons’ conditioning, even at his size, do not look for it to be the issue that it typically is with 350-pound players. Simmons was also on the track team in his time at Pearl Cohn, and though he was primarily involved with the throwing events, he laughed and said that, “All the running we do in track helps for sure,” when asked if his other sports had helped contribute to his conditioning. When Simmons arrives at Tennessee, only being expected to play on a single side of the ball will undoubtedly prove a boon to any question of his conditioning. This means that with the biggest question about players of his body type answered, the most pressing query remaining for Simmons is likely to be which side of the ball will he settle on?
During the same post-game interview after the contest with MBA, Simmons was asked which side of the ball he preferred to play. His answer was simple and to the point, with a big smile he replied, “Defense. You get to mess other guys up playing defense.” The joy displayed on the face of a young man that size talking about messing someone up likely put the same size smile on Jeremy Pruitt’s face. Simmons said that, as anticipated, the Vols intended him to play their Nose Tackle spot but had discussed potentially giving him a look at Guard. As this class has shaped up, however, it appears that Pruitt is going to be content to give Elijah at least his initial shot at messing guys up in the middle of his defense.
In Elijah Simmons, Tennessee is getting a special athlete. Simmons is a bit short for a typical Nose Tackle, but this gives him a lower center of gravity, which he uses to get under offensive lineman and drive them back when he is playing at his best. At times, Simmons can play too high, particularly when he is tired, and will need to continue to develop his hand technique under Tracy Rocker. In high school, Simmons was able to thrive not just on size, but on his exceptional athleticism as well. Coming off the ball at the snap, Simmons has a stunning first step. Simply put, a man that size is not supposed to be that quick out of a stance, yet Simmons consistently is. This means that Simmons was often able to break down an opposing lineman’s footwork immediately out of his stance thanks to his quick first step, then used his size and strength to exploit the off-balance blocker, either driving them where he wanted or muscling his way through a shoulder that was left too high.
Simmons shows good quickness for a defensive tackle, and exceptional quickness for a player that translates as a 3-4 nose. He will provide Pruitt with a player that can not only clog up the middle of an opposing offense but has the quickness to shoot a gap like a much smaller 4-3 tackle to try and create quick penetration into the backfield. That quickness has served Simmons well once he has beaten a blocker, allowing him the ability to track running backs and quarterbacks down in space. A sound tackler, Simmons can close on skill players and bring them down, all while possessing the ability to deliver tremendous hits if he shoots a gap quickly. This explosive ability, which is surprising to many just looking at Simmons, has been highlighted well in a pair of instances. On the football field, Simmons intercepted a pass and took it 55-yards for a touchdown during his senior campaign. His quickness and straight-line speed are surprising on that play to scouts and to his opponents. The second instance came in a video that was spawned from communications with Jeremy Pruitt following the Early Signing Day, which showed Simmons dunking a basketball at 6 feet and 350 pounds, no small feat. It is that explosion that makes Simmons so unique. He is more than just a big body in the middle of the defense, he possesses an ability to explode through blocks, to break down the technique of his opponents simply by coming out of his stance, and the strength to drive them where he wants.
Simmons needs to add techniques to his arsenal and become more polished as a player, as elite athleticism alone will not be enough to be effective in the SEC, but Tennessee coaches certainly have a special piece of clay to begin to mold. His size and raw talent will likely mean that Simmons plays early and often for Tennessee in the 2019 season. While he will have to add to his game and tighten his technique to truly be impactful for the Vols, Simmons will receive the coaching to do just that. Combined with his work ethic and raw talent, expect to hear about Elijah Simmons this fall for Tennessee, and expecting him to mess some people up would be a safe bet as well.