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 Upper Marlboro, Maryland product Savion Williams.
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 immediately. Size and strength are so imperative for defensive linemen in a 3-4 because the scheme relies on the linebackers being able to run sideline to sideline make plays. The defensive linemen primarily engage blockers, multiple blockers ideally, to allow the linebackers to read and react to the ball and the outside linebackers to serve as the primary pass rushers. This isn’t to say that 3-4 defensive linemen are just occupying space, they have to punish opponents should they decide to single block them. Defensive Ends for a 3-4 scheme can be difficult to find due to the mix of size and strength required to hold up against the run and the hand technique and quickness required to rush the passer. That said, Defensive Line Coach Tracy Rocker has to be excited as the Vols have singed a young man from the JUCO ranks that precisely fits the role in four-star Lackawanna Community College defensive tackle Savion Williams.
When Williams signed with the Vols during the early signing period in December, the Vols announced him at six foot four and three hundred fifteen pounds. Williams was rated as the number one JUCO defensive tackle in the 2019 class, and with his exceptional size, it appeared he could fit the bill of Nose Tackle in Tennessee’s 3-4 scheme. Then, in an interview with him, Williams said that coach Pruitt was looking to primarily use him as, “A big end.” At three fifteen, Williams is an enormous end, even in a big 3-4 front. Just from a size and strength standpoint, look for Williams’ presence on the field to immediately improve Tennessee’s run defense. As well as the seniors from last season played at times, they were often pushed around by teams that committed to power runs. That simply will not be the case with Williams. More than just a big body that is more difficult to move, Williams is immensely strong, and he has sound technique to apply that impressive strength to greatest effect. In a one-on-one situation, don’t expect to see Williams pushed around, in fact, he is capable of driving an offensive lineman back into the offensive backfield. At Lackawanna, Williams shows up on tape regularly blowing up run plays by driving his man into the backfield. He may not make the tackle, but he destroyed the timing of the play, created chaos, and left a gaping hole in the offensive line for his linebackers to come through and secure the ball carrier. That said, Williams is a capable tackler in space, with enough quickness to shed a driven blocker, make a lateral move, and bring down the ball carrier. Looking at a typical player of his size, a player like Williams is an asset against the run but often leaves something to be desired as a pass rusher. This is often minimized in a 4-3 scheme as players like Williams will be playing on the inside at defensive tackle, where pass rushing is prized but can be balanced out by edge rushing defensive ends. Even in a 3-4 scheme, playing in the nose tackle role, pass rushing is not the primary focus and can be supplemented. Playing at the end in a 3-4, however, means that Williams will not only be asked to set the edge and penetrate in the running game, he will have to flow out into space to cover screens and serve as at least a competent pass rusher. A typical player of his size may struggle to fill those roles, but Williams is far from a typical athlete, which is one of the reasons Pruitt is content to put him on the edge.
Savion Williams is a unique athlete, combining impressive size and strength with surprising speed and quickness. Williams played primarily on the inside at defensive tackle for Lackawanna, however he did step out to end for them from time to time. There, he shows a first step that is impressive for any defensive end, let alone one that tips the scales at over three hundred pounds. Williams is not going to match straight line speed of edge rushers that Tennessee has like Darrel Taylor, Roman Harrison, or Quavaris Crouch, but he has solid speed for a defensive end, surprising speed for his size there. Where Williams shows he can be special from a pure pass rushing standpoint is in his hand technique and his body lean. Williams uses his hands extremely well. His strikes with them are violent, utilizing his strength, and his hand punches regularly create space for him to operate against a tackle while also off balancing his opponent. He is adept at ripping to get either inside or outside an offensive lineman, and then pouring on his impressive strength to overwhelm a blocker after his quickness and technique allowed him advantageous position. Williams also has an able swim move, allowing him to turn the corner on tackles displaying solid technique. Once he can threaten the corner on a tackle, he has exceptional body lean and control for his size, able to turn the corner in a sharp lean without slowing, then pouring on the power to drive through a tackle’s final step. Once the tackle is dealt with, Williams closes well on the quarterback and arrives with a devastating blow. Again, Williams demonstrates good application of his immense strength in his tackling, moving and breaking down like a linebacker before delivering punishing hits with every tackle. Williams uses his hands very well, surprising opponents with his bursts of speed, but creating his advantages with balance and leverage through his hand use and strength. This is a unique athlete with a fairly polished skill set that should thrive under Pruitt and Rocker, appearing to be an outstanding fit in the role he will be asked to play.
Tennessee is replacing Shy Tuttle, Kyle Phillips, Alexis Johnson, and Paul Bain off of the defensive line from last season. The only player to log significant snaps last year that looks primed to return is rising senior Emmit Gooden. Gooden played well for the Vols last season, and while spots must be earned under this staff, it would be surprising to see Gooden left out of the Vols’ starting lineup. Where Gooden plays will be interesting, as he has the ability to play the nose, though he too can play as a big end in the 3-4. Arriving as a JUCO player with such a unique skillset and ample opportunity, it would be surprising to see Williams left out of the top three defensive lineman for the Vols as well. He has the size that Pruitt covets in the scheme, adequate polish to play immediately from his time in the JUCO ranks, and the experience leading a winning team that has been a theme with this class. (Lackawanna was undefeated in 2018, winning the El Toro Bowl with Williams as a clear leader.) Though Williams could play Nose, expect to see him serving as one of the starting ends for Tennessee when camp opens, likely nailing the spot down and holding on to it throughout the season. Williams is determined to help turn Tennessee around and lead this defense to different results than what 2018 yielded and should be one of the cornerstones of building the type of defense that Jeremy Pruitt wants Tennessee to be known for.