03 May

How Tennessee EDGE James Pearce Jr. went from unheralded recruit to one of college football’s names to know

Few Tennessee defenders have generated more buzz in recent years than James Pearce Jr. Ranked No. 2 behind only Colorado star Travis Hunter in CBS Sports’ Top 100 players in college football for 2024, Pearce has entered the conversation as a potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2025 NFL Draft.

He earned All-SEC First Team honors last season after recording 10 sacks — tied for most in the conference — and 28 tackles, half of which were for a loss, plus 52 quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. He capped the year with a pick six in the Volunteers’ Citrus Bowl win over Iowa.

Ask Tennessee’s coaching staff, and they’ll tell you Pearce has the potential to be so much more. That’s a terrifying thought for opposing offenses.

“We think the sky’s the limit for him,” defensive coordinator Tim Banks said of Pearce this spring. “Obviously, he was just a sophomore. I think he’s just scratching the surface on how good he can be. He’s extremely versatile … I think James would be the first one to tell you there’s a lot of room for improvement on his end, and the good news is he’s working extremely hard right now to take another step.”

Being a No. 1 pick is rarified air at Tennessee. The program has produced just two in its history, both of which were quarterbacks. The last one? A guy named Peyton Manning, who was taken first off the board by the Indianapolis Colts in the 1998 NFL Draft. Tennessee hasn’t even had a defensive player taken in the first round of the NFL Draft since 2017, when the Philadelphia Eagles selected Derek Barnett, the Vols’ career sack record-holder, with the No. 14 overall pick.

But Pearce is just that good — or, rather, he could be. The 6-foot-5 EDGE still has a ways to go and a whole season of football to play before he hears his name called next April — not that long roads are anything new to Pearce.

Humble beginnings
Just three years ago, barely anyone on a national scale knew Pearce’s name. A product of Julius L. Chambers High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the Class of 2022, Pearce didn’t receive his first power-conference offer (Oklahoma) until March 30, 2021. He didn’t earn a ranking from 247Sports until August of that year, and even then he was a three-star prospect.

But Tennessee came calling relatively early, and by September Pearce was on campus for a visit. A few more visits throughout the 2021 season — coach Josh Heupel’s first with the program — had the Vols steadily climbing up Pearce’s list of contenders, even as offers started to flow in from the likes of Georgia and Florida.

That December, Pearce signed with Tennessee seemingly out of the blue. He didn’t hold a big ceremony until after his signature was sent in and later confirmed that he almost waited until the traditional signing day in February 2022 to make a final decision. He never even made a commitment post on social media, though his addition was confirmed by Tennessee’s official X (formerly Twitter) account.

It wasn’t until a month after he signed that Pearce’s stock started to climb. In January 2022, he rose nearly 400 spots to land at No. 171 in the Top247 with a four-star ranking. In that May’s final 2022 rankings release, he occupied the No. 173 spot nationally.

Three months later, Pearce made his humble debut. As a freshman in 2022, he spent most of the year buried on the defensive depth chart and only appeared in garbage time. Even so, he flashed his potential with sacks against Akron and Missouri.

An NFL-coveted skill set
Though he made a rapid ascent up the recruiting rankings and impressed Tennessee’s coaching staff as a freshman, it was hard to imagine Pearce would have so much success as a sophomore. He had big shoes to fill in replacing Byron Young, who was selected by the Los Angeles Rams in the third round of the 2023 NFL Draft and went on to lead all rookies with eight sacks.

It didn’t take very long for Pearce, who garnered some acclaim with his efforts in offseason practices, to make a tangible impact. He had two sacks in Tennessee’s season-opening win against Virginia and almost singlehandedly wrecked the game as a constant presence in the backfield.

That was the first of three multi-sack games for Pearce, who also wreaked havoc against South Carolina and Iowa. He had at least one sack, tackle for a loss or quarterback pressure in all of Tennessee’s 13 games.

Simply put, Pearce has an immense toolbox. Though his 242-pound frame looks slight when lined up against SEC offensive tackles, he has the power to push linemen all the way into the quarterback’s pocket, something he did multiple times throughout the 2023 season. He’s incredibly quick off the snap and doesn’t lose any of that speed as he engages at the line of scrimmage. Though he has a deep package of pass-rush sets, he often won with a lethal swim move while utilizing that speed to take advantage of the stagger.

His raw athleticism and natural ability sets him apart from a lot of defenders at the collegiate level. As he continues to develop technique and finesse, it’s not hard to see him entering that No. 1 pick echelon — something no Tennessee defender has ever accomplished.

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