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 Powder Springs, Georgia product Jaylen McCollough.
Jeremy Pruitt cut his teeth and made his bones as a coach working with defensive backs. Working his way up from a position coach, to a defensive coordinator, and finally a head coach, Pruitt laid the foundation of his coaching career on his expertise with defensive backs. It should come as no surprise then, that at all of his stops and various levels of coaching, Pruitt, a man that loves coaching players one-on-one, has always stayed heavily involved with his DB’s. More than simply being an outstanding teacher of technique and developer of talent with the guys on the back end of the defense, Pruitt has a keen eye for talent in the evaluation process all over the field, but he is particularly gifted in identifying talented players that fit what he wants in a defensive back. Any questions regarding that area of Pruitt’s expertise should be put to bed with a glance at the production of Tennessee’s freshmen corners last season. Alontae Taylor was primarily an offensive player in high school, expected to play receiver at Tennessee, and instead shows all the hallmarks of developing into a shut-down corner for the Vols under Pruitt’s eye. Opposite Taylor, the Vols had another true freshman that was originally expected to play receiver as well in Bryce Thompson. Taylor played so well early that it meant teams decided to test the other freshman early and often, and Thompson made them pay for it en route to a selection as a Freshman All-American. As good as they are, Taylor and Thompson are different types of corners, but Pruitt has gotten excellent production from them both. Add in the play of Trevon Flowers at safety before injury cut his season short and it is evident that Pruitt is willing to use freshman in his defensive backfield, and that he can get sound play out of them. All of these facts should leave Vol fans excited to see former Hillgrove Safety Jaylen McCollough get on the field.
McCollough is graded out as a four-star safety but had been ranked as high as one of the top fifty players in the nation before a nagging injury hampered his senior season. Regardless, one look at the tape reveals an extremely special athlete in McCollough. The most difficult decision regarding McCollough for the Tennessee coaching staff, namely new Defensive Backs Coach Derick Ansley, might be which safety spot to have him play. At six feet even and right at two hundred pounds, McCollough has the typical build of a free safety. He also has the exceptional speed to thrive playing centerfield for a defense. Calling what McCollough has, “Make-up speed,” could be a misnomer. It implies that he makes a mistake in coverage and then must use his speed to cover up that error. While that does happen on occasion, and his speed allows him to erase his rare mistakes, McCollough more often uses his speed in coverage to bait opposing quarterbacks into mistakes. Jaylen McCollough is one of the most gifted, pure athletes in the nation in the 2019 signing class, and that is not the greatest strength he brings to the table. On tape, it becomes evident just how cerebral McCollough plays the game. When he is left to a deep coverage assignment, he regularly reads the eyes of the quarterback, appearing out of position, before eating up an astounding amount of grass to break up a pass or come down with an interception. This may seem like gambling, but with the mental edge that McCollough plays with, it is more akin to him counting cards. Considering his build, mental acuity, staggering, smooth speed, and excellent ball skills, slotting McCollough in at free safety may seem like an obvious choice. It likely would be were it not for the way McCollough can hit.
The highest praise that can be given to a Tennessee Safety, in my mind, is to be compared in any facet to Eric Berry. Jaylen McCollough absolutely has some Eric Berry to his game. He admitted as much in our interview with him, along with a few other great NFL players, but the Berry similarities pop on tape. Both have a similar build, both have incredible speed, both can turn a turnover into points in a breath, but most importantly, both are devastating hitters. For clarification, yes, McCollough can deliver Berry-esque hits. Set your DVR’s Tennessee fans. The ability to deliver crushing hits will tempt Pruitt to let McCollough play closer to the line of scrimmage in the role of a strong safety. The fact that McCollough is also a very sound, form tackling defensive back will encourage letting him operate as a strong safety, especially considering the struggles the Vols had in making good tackles last season. Though his size and lean frame may make analysts question if McCollough can play among so many large bodies in the box, he was regularly walked up to play there in high school and excelled in the role. McCollough also is adept at utilizing his speed as a blitzer to blow up run plays and create pressure on quarterbacks. This is a young man with precious few holes in his game that can do everything asked of him at either safety position, all with an exceptionally high football I.Q.
If all of that wasn’t enough to have filled into a single player, McCollough is a natural born leader. Even in conversation, he commands respect and attention simply by the way he carries himself. The mental edge that he plays the game with not only applies to his position, but to the defense as a whole. He clearly sees the bigger picture, understands the wider game, and demands the best from his teammates as they play their part in that game. McCollough is a leader by example and by words. He arrives at Tennessee with his head firmly screwed on, focused on getting better, making his team better, and achieving his goals. After a few conversations with him, my best wishes to anyone that intends to get between Jaylen and those goals. This is the kind of young man that teammates will take a bite out of the goalposts for, and it is not an act or bravado, it is as natural to him as running. A proven winner and leader, McCollough arrives in Knoxville with everything a defensive coach could hope for in terms of talent and intangibles.
Tennessee returns a significant amount of talent in the secondary this season, though there does look to be an opportunity for someone to win a starting job at the safety spot opposite senior Nigel Warrior. The primary contenders for that spot will likely be the aforementioned Trevon Flowers, Theo Jackson, and fellow 2019 signee Aaron Beasley. No disrespect to any of the other players that are listed, but McCollough should be the odds-on favorite to nail down that starting position. This is a young man that a coach can build a defense around, potentially an entire program. The more tape reviewed, the stronger the feeling came that Jaylen McCollough can not only be a contributor as a freshman, he could be a star. All of the components are there for McCollough to leave Knoxville as a legend for the Vols. Those are lofty expectations for the young man, however this young man will settle for nothing less than greatness out of himself. He has the talent, the attitude, the intangibles, and the coaching staff to develop into one of the most special players to come through Tennessee in several years. McCollough may have been a quieter addition in this class, never wavering in his commitment to Tennessee, but he is an exceptional talent. The Orange and White Game doesn’t get here until April 13th, and if Vol fans are looking to get excited about something between the beatings the Basket-Vols are handing out, Jaylen McCollough’s film is a must watch.