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Tennessee DE James Pearce can impact season more than Vols QB Nico Iamaleava

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Tennessee quarterback Nico Iamaleava isn’t the Vols’ most important player on the roster. Wait, bear with me. Let’s dive down that rabbit hole.

Let’s first begin with my assessment, based off of conversations within Tennessee’s football program and NFL scouts as well as multiple media reports projecting a particular Vol as a top NFL Draft pick, that a certain Vol can be truly elite. And I’m not talking about the quarterback position.

Iamaleava is going to be very good, if not elite. I’ll be glad to stand on business on that, as Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz likes to say. Therefore, let’s start with the concept that Iamaleava is “very good” this season and “elite” is on hold until the Vols’ redshirt freshman quarterback gets a little more seasoning. However, there is another player that has already proven he’s elite and can have almost the same impact on the Vols as Iamaleava.

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Defensive lineman James Pearce, Jr., can win football games for the Vols this season. There’s no question of that. Pearce, who Pro Football Focus named as the top pick in next season’s NFL Draft, has already proven he’s elite. Pearce led all SEC defensive linemen  last season with 8 1/2 sacks while posting 13 tackles for a loss. 

While Iamaleava will be asked to be consistent, Pearce can more often times allow his athletic ability to just take over than a quarterback. One strip-sack can change a football game. One key stop on third or fourth down can do the same. Pearce has proven he can do all of that. He’s also proven that there’s reason to be concerned he may not stay out of trouble long enough to lead the SEC in sacks again.

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Pearce has already been involved in one incident that is beyond head scratching. The highest-graded defensive end, according to Pro Football Focus, graded out with some pretty poor decision making when he was charged with a variety of traffic violations after being pulled over for speeding and eventually charged with driving too fast, driving on a suspended license, failure to present insurance, registration improperly displayed and improper window tinting. The latter? That means he made the police mad.

Per the police report, Pearce had to be told multiple times to turn off his vehicle and step out of the vehicle. Then, police claimed he didn’t follow instructions as the car was being towed. The charges were all dropped in December, based on Pearce paying the fines and getting his registration in place, so the specific incident is no longer news. However, it’s hard not to worry about a trend when a player openly defies law enforcement.

Let’s put it this way. I feel much better about Iamaleava having a fantastically productive summer during the Vols’ workouts than I do Pearce staying out of trouble. Summer is a long period in which coaches go to bed every night praying their players can stay out of a trouble. That’s across the board at every school. However, Pearce has given Tennessee reason to be concerned. Dismissed or not, there’s a history, if not an official record.

Can Pearce make a bigger impact on the Vols’ season than even it’s starting quarterback? It’s not outside the realm of possibility. It’s also not outside the realm of possibility that Pearce could find himself in trouble once again.

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