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 Cornelius, North Carolina product Tyus Fields.
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 William Amos Hough Corner Tyus Fields get on the field.
If Tyus Fields had arrived at Tennessee as a true freshman in the fall of 2018, he would have in all likelihood been a lock to be a day one starter at one of the corner spots for the Vols. However, Fields is arriving in the fall of 2019, and that means that he is going to have to compete against Tennessee’s stud sophomore duo of Taylor and Thompson for playing time. That said, Fields is plenty good enough to get on the field and carve out a role for himself in the defensive backfield thanks to his size, skillset, versatility, and the need the Vols have for quality players in the secondary.
Fields looks the part of what we are beginning to see is a Jeremy Pruitt corner. Fields was listed at 5 feet 10 inches tall and 185 pounds in high school, though he looks a slightly taller and thicker than that since arriving at Tennessee as an early enrollee. Fields has a strong build for his size, as his frame looks more muscular on film than you would anticipate from his measurements. The way that Fields plays also reflects that he plays stronger and bigger than he measures. While at William A. Hough, Fields played an interesting role, almost a press coverage safety in much of his film. This position came because many of the teams that Fields and his teammates faced ran out of some flavor of spread, using multiple receivers to create space and favorable matchups. On tape, it is evident that the four-star prospect was the best pure cover man that Hough had available, but the tape also shows why he was playing inside and at safety more than as a pure cover corner. Fields is superb in run support, with good instincts, quick play diagnosis, and is a solid, form tackler. That thicker build also means that he is comfortable fighting through blockers to get to swing and screen passes, as well as defending outside runs. There is a comfort with physicality that Fields shows on tape that makes it clear why he was playing this hybrid, nickel-safety role in high school. Fields closes, hits, and tackles like a blue-chip safety, and has the coverage and ball skills of a blue-chip corner. There are very few holes in Fields’s game, he is a complete defensive back that can do most anything asked of him. The only real question facing Fields will be in regard to his speed. Fields is plenty fast, fast enough to cover most SEC receivers in man coverage, but when he is faced with elite speed, he could struggle. Similarly, though he has a stronger build than anticipated and plays with a physical edge, his size is a bit of a concern as an SEC safety.
The good news for Fields and the Vols, however, is that the prized prospect’s quickest route to meaningful playing time and contributing for Derrick Ansley’s defense will be in playing a role very similar to the one he played in high school. Jeremy Pruitt has put a premium on versatile defensive players in his time in Knoxville. Since Pruitt likes to run a multiple, shifting defense where one player may be expected to contain various assignments depending on the play call, it makes sense that he has targeted defenders that can line up in multiple positions. Fields has a style of play and a body that made him a bit of a tweener coming out of high school, but make him a perfect fit at the nickel spot for Pruitt, Ansley, and the Vols. Fields is adept in man and zone coverage, and his high football IQ means that he reads the quarterback well. If in zone coverage, Fields is particularly good at breaking on a throw to at least break a pass up, if not intercepting it. His ability to fight through blocks on the edge and willingness to lay a big hit once he has, while securing the ball carrier and wrapping up, immediately addresses an area where Tennessee struggled mightily last season. Expect to see Ansley lining the physical Fields up tight on receivers, where he is comfortable pressing and jamming receivers. Not only will this allow Fields to disrupt routes and timing for opposing offenses, it will allow him to use his excellent instincts to diagnose plays. In that position, Fields can either muscle his way through most receivers to be a valuable asset in run support, or he can flip his hips and run with an off-footed receiver to take him out of the play. The Vols sorely need a nickel corner that can cover as well as hold up against the run, and Fields looks tailor made to fill that void.
This hybrid, nickel-safety type spot looks like the most logical path for Fields to get on the field, but it is not his only path. Fields was also a good return man in high school, and he is likely to at least get a look as kick and especially punt returner for the Vols. Still, Fields was one of the prized recruits of this class, and his tape has the look of a Jeremy Pruitt guy. If Fields isn’t starting on opening day at the nickel for the Vols, it is extremely likely that he will be by the season’s end. Considering how many teams play a base, spread offense now, the nickel corner really is a unique position that plays starter snaps. Tyus Fields looks to be an ideal fit for that spot in Knoxville and should be the next component in a dynamic, young secondary for the Vols.