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Volunteer Countdown No. 3: EDGE James Pearce Jr. could propel Tennessee Football to best DL in history

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Tennessee Football enters the season as one of the most highly-anticipated teams in the country. Who will be the key pieces for the Vols in 2024? The following is a countdown series of the most important Vols on Tennessee’s roster as they head into summer workouts.

Everything about Tennessee Football screams offense under Josh Heupel, but the Vols’ deepest position entering the year is on the defensive line. There, with Rodney Garner leading the way, they may have their most gifted edge rusher since Leonard Little.

James Pearce Jr. returns as by far the Vols’ most talented player. PFF already projects him as the No. 1 prospect in the 2025 NFL Draft, as he’s coming off a year in which he had 10 sacks and 14.5 tackles for a loss along with a 21.3 percent pressure rate. There are reasons to believe he could take even another step forward this year.


Assuming Tennessee Football stays healthy on offense and Nico Iamaleava is better than Joe Milton III, the Vols should get a lot of big, early leads. That’ll force more obvious passing downs in games this year than last year, which will allow for Pearce to go off. Add in the increased experience, and it’s honestly scary what he could do.

Pearce isn’t alone up front, though. The Vols have three solid defensive tackles in Omari Thomas, Omarr Norman-Lott, Dominic Bailey and Bryson Eason, but they also reportedly have a generational talent in Elijah Simmons if he can stay health. Their push will free up Pearce even more, and UT is too deep at edge rusher for offenses to be able to just run away from Pearce.

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What If?

That level of depth by the Vols with two generational-type players, possibly, is why they could have the best defensive line in school history, even better than the 2001 team with John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth. It’s also, ironically, why Pearce isn’t the most important player on the team despite being the most talented.

If Pearce goes down, Tennessee Football can turn to Joshua Josephs, Daevin Hobbs, Chandavian Bradley and five-star pickup Jordan Ross. Simply put, they have weapons all over the defensive line. Pearce is just the guy who can turn it from a strength to an unprecedented unit.


Given his supporting cast and the way the Vols are set up, it’s not crazy to think that Pearce may break Reggie White’s single-season sacks record this year for the Vols. White had 15 in 1983, and that was his senior year. Pearce plays a position friendlier to sacks and will have more opportunities. Either way, he should leap off everybody’s screen this year.

Worth Noting

Pearce has also dropped into coverage at the Leo position for the Vols and seen success there, including running back an interception for a touchdown against the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Citrus Bowl. At 6’5″ 242, he pretty much did everything with raw, athletic ability in 2023, which is another reason to believe in him for 2024.

As for the rest of the top 10 most important players for Tennessee Football entering summer workouts, here is the countdown:

10 Javontez Spraggins

9 John Campbell Jr.

8 Omari Thomas

7. Bru McCoy

6. Rickey Gibson III

5. Squirrel White

4. Keenan Pili

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