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. Our Player Profile series continues with a look at Henry To’oto’o out of Concord, California.
The linebacker position is an interesting one for the Tennessee Volunteers as they approach the 2019 season. The Vols have several veteran players within the group, but there are questions about how well those players fit within the 3-4 defense that Jeremy Pruitt and new defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley have implemented. Players like Daniel Bituli have looked like staples in the middle of the defense at times, and at other times they have struggled to cover assignments. Darrin Kirkland Junior was expected to be a lock to start at one of the inside linebacker positions, however, the chronic knee injuries that have plagued his career have brought his time with the Vols to a premature end. As unfortunate as that is for Kirkland, it opens up an opportunity for the rest of the Tennessee linebacking corps. Players like Will Ignot made an impact when given opportunities last season and could challenge for a starting spot. Redshirt Freshman JJ Peterson was one of the jewels of Tennessee’s 2018 recruiting class, and though he has been a bit of an enigma since arriving on campus, he looks to figure into the battles for inside and outside linebacker. Outside, Senior Darrel Taylor has one of the starting positions on lockdown. Taylor was Tennessee’s best pass rusher by far last season, but the Vols never really found a player to pair opposite him in the base defense. After Jonathan Kongbo’s graduation, the outside linebacker spot opposite Taylor should be wide open. The Vols also add multiple, talented newcomers in the 2019 recruiting class that should not only bolster the linebacking corps but could challenge to start inside and outside as true freshman. One of the most exciting is De La Salle High School product, Henry To’oto’o.
To’oto’o arrives in Knoxville as one of the most heralded players in the 2019 recruiting class. He starred on both sides of the ball, as a linebacker and running back, at the perennial powerhouse De La Salle. To’oto’o was recruited by virtually everyone in the country, his combination of size, speed, success against high level competition, and excellent coaching in high school ensuring that he was targeted across the nation. In the end, it came down to Tennessee and Alabama for To’oto’o on National Signing Day, and the De La Salle connections each school had. Alabama’s recruitment was led by Tosh Lupoi, the defensive coordinator for the Crimson Tide and a De La Salle product. Tennessee also had a De La Salle graduate helping to recruit To’oto’o in Kevin Simon, a former star linebacker for the Vols that first excelled as a linebacker and running back for the Spartans. The two SEC programs were neck and neck coming into National Signing Day in their efforts to secure the services of the talented linebacker, but when Lupoi left Tuscaloosa to join the staff of the Cleveland Browns, the Vols found an edge. When To’oto’o put on his Orange and Gray cap, live on ESPN, it represented not only Tennessee landing an elite prospect and addressing a major need, it was a head-to-head recruiting win against Alabama over a prospect both programs coveted. Landing To’oto’o is one of Jeremy Pruitt’s biggest recruiting victories in his brief tenure with the Vols. A look at To’oto’o’s tape shows why the Vols prioritized the talented linebacker so highly.
The Vols have To’oto’o listed at six feet two inches tall and weighing two hundred thirty pounds. That means that To’oto’o is arriving in Knoxville with enough size to play any of the linebacker positions in Tennessee’s base 3-4 scheme. At two hundred thirty pounds, To’oto’o should be able to hold up against the run, even as an inside linebacker, but his frame is one that Tennessee Strength Coach Craig Fitzgerald will want to pack more muscle mass onto throughout his career with the Vols. There are bigger linebackers than To’oto’o, but he is plenty big enough for what Pruitt and Ansley will ask of him. What makes To’oto’o special is the speed that comes with that size. To’oto’o was a talented running back for De La Salle, and that speed translates when he is playing linebacker. It is primarily the acceleration and straight-line speed that make To’oto’o so versatile. On the edge of the Vols’ 3-4 defense, To’oto’o absolutely has the burst to be a pass rushing outside linebacker. In fact, he could thrive in that role with defensive minds as creative and Pruitt and Ansley setting him up. More than your typical edge rusher, To’oto’o can stunt inside from the outside linebacker spot, or blitz an interior gap from an alignment that would normally indicate him playing in coverage. Bumped to an inside linebacker spot, To’oto’o’s speed and high football IQ make him and sideline to sideline tackling machine. He shows a, “See ball, get ball,” mentality. To’oto’o has excellent lateral mobility, flowing well with the play before using his explosive acceleration to close out on a ball carrier. It is also worth mentioning that To’oto’o plays well through trash as a linebacker. He is comfortable with big bodies around him, moving smoothly through blockers and other defenders as he follows, diagnoses, and then often ends a play. Again, To’oto’o’s speed will be utilized on the inside as a blitzer as well. His explosive first step, good hand technique, and strength will allow him to shoot interior gaps in opposing offensive lines to generate immediate pressure in the faces of opposing quarterbacks. This could prove especially effective if the Tennessee nose tackle can consistently command a double team, opening a significant gap to exploit in an opposing line. For all those strengths, there is another quality that is likely to get To’oto’o onto the field as a freshman.
Tennessee linebackers, particularly the middle linebackers, were victimized often in pass coverage in the 2018 season. Some of that was due to players learning new positions, assignments, responsibilities, and schemes, but some was due to them just not being great in coverage. Factor in clever play calling to get the linebackers to react aggressively and go out of position, and teams knew that they could hurt the Vols by attacking the middle of the defense in the passing game. The combination of Darrin Kirkland Jr.’s unfortunate retirement from football due to injuries and Henry To’oto’o’s ability to excel in coverage have given the freshman an opportunity to hit the ground running in Knoxville. To’oto’o is too talented to not be playing for the Vols this fall. His speed, fluid hips, and good ball skills, especially for a linebacker, are going to make him an asset when asked to cover tight ends and running backs. His speed and the excellent lateral mobility he displays will allow him to get himself back into plays if he is initially sucked in on a play action fake or a bootleg action. Pruitt wants his linebackers to be aggressive and fast flowing while still playing disciplined football. Descriptions of To’oto’o’s tape keep returning the word, “fluid.” He is a smooth athlete that seems to always be in motion and always getting himself to the ball. That coverage ability will allow him to challenge for a starting position as a true freshman.
Pruitt and Ansley were faced with the challenge of retooling Tennessee’s front seven to fit their image of a 3-4 defense. This meant recruiting completely different types of defensive linemen and linebackers. To’oto’o is one of the keystones that they want this rebuild raised around over the next four years. The De La Salle product arrives as a polished athlete already, one that Tennessee coaches will shape and sharpen so that he can contribute early. To’oto’o may not start on opening day against Georgia State, but he will certainly play against the Panthers. The Vols have two linebacker spots wide open for new starters, one inside and one outside. It is difficult to see a scenario where a healthy To’oto’o fails to nail one of them down by season’s end.