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Tennessee coach Josh Heupel claims his star defensive Vol still needs to grow

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Tennessee has one well-known, young star on its team that can unintentionally outshine all others. That makes sense. He’s a highly rated quarterback with a good back story. However, Nico Iamaleava may not end up holding a candle to defensive end James Pearce.

Pearce is certainly more of a known commodity than Iamaleava, who is from California and may be the Vols’ highest-rated signee of all time, or any underclassman for that matter. There isn’t a redshirt freshman, even Iamaleava, that has made his presence felt during the fall nearly as much as Pearce.

Take a look at his accomplishments to this point in the rising junior’s career. If his play continues to improve, Pearce could be one of the very top picks in the NFL Draft whenever he decides to go pro, which he can do after this season. Considering he plays such a coveted position, it’s possible Pearce could be the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. Executives dig a great pass rusher and Pearce is certainly that.

According to Pro Football Focus, Pearce was the SEC’s highest graded defensive end last season season at 86.7, which ranks 12th in the FBS. That’s pretty impressive, especially playing in the SEC, which he has dominated. 

Pearce led all SEC defensive linemen with 8.5 sacks and was tied for fifth overall in the league with 13.0 tackles for a loss last season. He posted more than one TFL in six games last season, including five SEC contests.

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Ready for the most impressive statistic on Pearce’s resume? He’s only started two games despite playing in 25, which begs the question: Why hasn’t Pearce been a starter each and every week since his rise to national notoriety?

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Well, there are a couple of reasons for that. First, there were more experienced players above Pearce on the depth chart. After all, he’s only a sophomore. Plus, there’s the concept of continued motivation. Tennessee coach Josh Heupel doesn’t want one of his star players believing he has already arrived. That could bring complacency. That’s not what Heupel wants.

“You know, James needs to grow as a player, too,” Heupel said during the Vols’ press conference on Monday to open spring camp. “And he would stand up here and tell you that as well. There’s things that he’s working on for him to become his best and take his game to another level. 

A messy traffic stop in which Pearce was allegedly disrespectful to police before being arrested probably didn’t help his amount of playing time or number of starts last year. However, those charges were dropped in December, so there shouldn’t be anything holding him back this season.

Heupel was asked about Pearce seeing extra attention from offenses this fall to hold him in check, which could be an extra lineman, tight end or running back to chip him during a pass rush to slow him down. Teams could also run away from him or directly at him depending on how the 6-foot-5, 242-pounder responds.

That is all to be determined this fall. Pearce is enough of a known commodity that he doesn’t need much work this spring. His most important goal in the offseason is to stay healthy for the fall. Does Pearce still need to “grow” as Heupel said? Certainly, but he’s already a pretty stout young man and – perhaps – the best NFL prospect on Tennessee’s roster.

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