KNOXVILLE — Some of the University of Tennessee's football signees this past recruiting cycle may have been at positions in greater need of new talent, but the last player to officially sign with the program in February might be the most impressive of the class so far.
And while there were some experienced players returning at inside linebacker for the Volunteers, Henry To'o To'o has made it clear in the early going that it's going to be hard to keep him off the field.
The 6-foot-2, 232-pounder is one of a growing number of true freshmen making early impressions in preseason practices, making it very possible he could be in line to start alongside senior Daniel Bituli at inside linebacker. Obviously, there are others competing — junior Will Ignont is the incumbent, junior Shanon Reid impressed during spring practices and redshirt freshman J.J. Peterson seems to be coming on after a slow start — but To'o To'o has stood out for his agility as well as how developed he was coming in from nationally renowned De La Salle High School in California.
"Henry is a guy who things have come real easy to him," Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said. "He picks things up, (is) instinctive, can cover, fits the runs, is what you're looking for in a linebacker. He's pretty advanced for a young guy at that position. He is capable of being a signal caller. He is a guy who can play all three downs. He goes out there and works every day. He's a hard-working guy, he's tough, he's physical. He's got to continue to do that and work hard every day."
Here are four other true freshmen making early impressions for the Vols.
» Defensive back Warren Burrell: With the Vols' experience returning at cornerback, Burrell is the biggest surprise on this list. An early enrollee, the 6-foot, 176-pounder has been third in line in 1-on-1 drills viewable by the media, behind sophomores Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson. With the star/nickel position still unclear, Burrell bursting onto the scene could give coaches the option to move Taylor inside, which would give the secondary a third solid cover guy.
"You know, Warren is a smart guy," Pruitt said. "Football is very important to him, he is very conscientious, works hard in the weightroom, has put on some weight this summer in the offseason. He is a guy that competed really well in the spring, and we expect him to continue to do that."
» Outside linebacker Quavaris Crouch: Another early enrollee, Crouch began learning the system in the spring. There was a question as to whether he would fit more at outside linebacker or inside, but so far the 6-foot-1, 246-pounder has fit in outside, where he's been able to use his speed and athleticism to make plays. With the position opposite senior Darrell Taylor still up for grabs, Crouch could find himself in the rotation to provide more pressure from the outside.
"That'll help a lot," inside linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer said of Crouch's early enrollment. "He's gone through spring and our summer meetings. It is going to be his third time being exposed to a lot of the information. It'll help him a lot. Again, there are a lot of stresses outside of football with school, travel and the whole thing you go through in the fall. It will help him."
» Running back Eric Gray: He missed most of the spring due to an injury, but the three-time state Mr. Football Back of the Year has already proven he has the ability to be a game-changer with the ball in his hands, which could lead coaches to find ways to make that happen during the season. He can serve as a quality backup to juniors Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan.
"You know, Eric is very mature," Pruitt said. "When you watch him practice and go about his business, he gets it the first time. He learns from other people's mistakes. He's got really good ball skills, good vision, he's a good competitor, he jumps out there and is very mature when it comes to football playing abilities. We're excited about him. I think he's had a really good camp so far."
» Offensive lineman Wanya Morris: The 6-foot-4, 313-pounder wasted no time solidifying himself as one of the team's top options for its evolving offensive line. Not much is clear about the group — the only other player consistently receiving No. 1 reps is senior center Brandon Kennedy — but Morris has firmly entrenched himself as the team's left tackle, a money spot because he draws the responsibility of protecting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano's backside.