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 Myrtle Beach, South Carolina product Kenney Solomon.
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 Socastee Corner Kenney Solomon get on the field.
Solomon was a late addition to Tennessee’s 2019 class, a young man that didn’t have a lot of Power Five offers before the Vols extended one to him. The primary competition that Tennessee had down the stretch for Solomon was UCF, though Solomon appeared to be a heavy Vol lean from his first visit to campus. Solomon wasn’t highly heralded for the Vols on National Signing Day, a bit over shadowed by the Pruitt and Company landing Darnell Wright and Henry To’oto’o, but he was far from unimportant.
As a corner, Solomon comes to Knoxville with a long, lean, rangy frame that looks more and more like what Jeremy Pruitt wants in his corners. He has the height to match up against taller receivers, his great wingspan allowing him to make plays on the ball against wideouts that do have a significant height advantage. Pruitt and new Defensive Coordinator Derrick Ansley will want to see Solomon add some muscle to his frame under Strength Coach Craig Fitzgerald’s program, which will help in holding up in press coverage. Tennessee was glad to land Solomon despite him being a bit of a diamond in the rough prospect. Solomon flew under the radar in part because he was so raw and does need to be coached up. His technique is fine for the level he is leaving, but to be an SEC cover corner, he has to learn to use his hands better, improve his footwork, play with more physicality, and loosen his hips when he turns to run. These are all things that can be improved with coaching a good strength program. What makes Solomon exciting for the Vols is what he has that can’t be coached, elite speed. In a camp, Solomon clocked a blistering 4.36 second forty-yard dash time, and he isn’t just fast in shorts either. That lethal speed translates to field for Solomon, who showed on tape that he was capable of running his way out of most any mistake he could make. He possesses exceptional make-up speed and is further capable of running his way into plays that most players would have no hope of impacting. Paired with that long, rangy frame and solid ball skills, Solomon becomes a very difficult corner to attempt to throw over. For all his speed and raw talent, with the corners that the Vols have on the roster already and the ones coming in this class, Solomon looks to factor in as primarily a reserve corner for Tennessee in 2019. While the staff would like to develop Solomon before saddling him with heavy playing time, his size and speed should see him play as a true freshman for the Vols even if there are no injury issues. However, that isn’t where Solomon could have his best shot to get on the field.
Tennessee moved several players around last season to work returning punts and kickoffs. Even by the end of the season, the Vols never really seemed to settle on someone that was their return specialist in the vein of Evan Berry or Cam Sutton. If he can add the muscle under Fitzgerald quickly to help prevent injury, Solomon could serve as the starting return man for the Vols when the season opens. Tennessee would like to limit huge hits in the return game for players like Marquez Callaway, Bryce Thompson, and Ty Chandler. In Solomon, Tennessee has a player with lethal speed and good instincts as a returner. At Socastee, Solomon had both punts and kickoffs returned for touchdowns. He was also used at times on offense, so he is accustomed to working as a ball carrier. The solid ball skills he shows on defense, comfort carrying the ball, and game breaking speed if he gets a seam means that Solomon would have the opportunity to be an ideal return specialist for the Vols. Not only could he make an impact as a true freshman while growing into his role at corner, he could protect some of the Vol starters while being able to dedicate himself to this vital role. The role won’t simply be handed to Solomon, but the talented freshman is going to have every chance to secure the job of return specialist.
The Vols have a player in Solomon that is a bit of a project as a corner. He has immense physical gifts, but he will require good coaching to learn to maximize them and succeed in the SEC. The staff sees him as a diamond in the rough and are confident in their ability to develop him and get excellent play from him. Still, he could see meaningful snaps for Tennessee as a true freshman and fill a position of need for the Vols. Tennessee struggled on offense at times last season, and those struggles can be alleviated or even overcome with the addition of a superb return man. Again, Vol fans need only to recall the caliber of weapon that Evan Berry was at Tennessee to know the kind of impact Kenney Solomon could make if he could secure and excel as a return specialist. Expect to see Solomon be one of the chief contenders in camp for the return duties, and should he rise to the occasion, he could be fielding the opening kickoff of the 2019 season. Solomon is an intriguing prospect for the coaches to mold, and he will be involved in one of the more interesting position battles throughout camp.