Friday Night Files: 2020 LB Martavius French
It is difficult to talk about French, a four-star linebacker prospect from Memphis, without talking about his running mates and friends Bryson Eason and Tamarion McDonald. The trio of four-star defenders are the core of a Whitehaven defense that is among the best in the country this season. The trio of friends have been close since they were young, and all three display many of the same characteristics of leadership. Most teams have one player that all the others tend to fall in line behind, but for Whitehaven, McDonald, Eason, and French all take the reigns for this special unit. The three of them each lead a portion of the team in pre-game warmups, they each take the lead in various drills, and they are the players that set the tone for the defense when they are on the field. All three rely on and interact with one another, but they all have unique styles. French is the vocal leader as well as the source of the boundless energy that this team plays with. He is at the center of all the chants, the guy dancing around in the middle of the group getting his teammates ready to go, and the man that is standing on the bench when his offense is on the field. He watches the whole game, always engaged, always keeping his team fired up. When one of his defensive tackles intercepted a screen pass and returned it for a touchdown, on an entire defense that was thrilled for the score, French was at the heart of it. This Tiger defense is a special one, they play together and for each other. They are quick to praise their teammates, quicker to share in their joys, and play each snap for the guys beside them. This is the kind of culture and unit that coaches dream of having, and French is one of the players at the center of what Whitehaven has created.
The Vols are trying to land French because that infectious energy, that tight-knit mentality, and that motivation to leave it all on the field to not let your brothers down is not easily found. French feels like the heartbeat of the Whitehaven defense, and Jeremy Pruitt would like to see him bring that same pulse to the interior of the defense in Knoxville. Though Tennessee has shown since the Georgia game that they may have the mental part of their game trending in the right direction, this is still a group that has folded in the face of adversity multiple times over the last four to five years. Their mental toughness has been questioned and frankly, it has been found wanting at times. Jeremy Pruitt is trying to change that mindset, and after fighting Georgia tooth and nail, then upsetting Mississippi State in another hard-fought game where the team looked determined, it seems he is making progress. If Pruitt can add French into the equation, he will secure a player capable of altering a culture with his energy and attitude. French radiates energy. He is passionate, loud, and focused. He won’t allow his teammates to wallow or lull, pushing them, encouraging them, and pouring out to keep them going. Keeping that in mind, it makes sense why something current Volunteer freshman linebacker Henry To’oto’o said resonated so much with French. Leaving the field, To’oto’o looked up into the stands where the visitors were for the game, French among them. He simply said, “Do you see why we need you so much, now?” That simple question seems to have struck a chord with French and his Whitehaven teammates, as French and Eason played in their game wearing Tennessee gear.
As much as the Vols need leaders and tone-setters on their defense for emotional and energy reasons, they also need impact SEC players. Specifically, after graduations and transfers, the Vols desperately need quality inside linebackers. Again, French fills a need for Tennessee, as he is one of the finest linebackers in America. At six feet two inches tall and two hundred forty pounds, French is an imposing presence as an inside linebacker. He has the size and strength to not only handle being an inside linebacker but an inside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. Working out of a 3-4, inside linebackers are often asked to deal more with interior offensive linemen in the running game, where in a 4-3 scheme the additional defensive tackle often serves to keep the linebackers clean. French has the size to play through contact with big offensive linemen, even SEC sized offensive linemen, and make plays without being ground down. He is capable of stepping up to a guard and stoning a lead blocking lineman cold in his tracks, taking him out of the play and allowing his teammates to make a play. One of the impressive qualities of French and the Tiger defense is that trust between teammates. They are willing to play their assignments, even when it means they won’t make the tackle because they trust their teammates to get there. If French’s job is to occupy a lineman so that someone else can make the play, he will do so willingly, and celebrate with his teammate after he brings down the ball carrier. That is an infectious, selfless attitude, and it is a substantial portion of French’s personality that shows through in that play. Martavius French plays sound, high IQ, selfless defense, and he plays each snap with the same intensity whether he occupies a double team or blitzes the quarterback.
Just like French trusts his teammates to make plays, they trust him to do the job when his number is called, and he rarely lets them down. French plays fast. He possesses impressive speed, particularly for a linebacker of his size, but there is more to it than that. French sees plays, digests them, and reacts quickly. He is a highly instinctive linebacker that processes what his keys and his eyes tell him. He trusts what he sees and attacks. It is easy to think that French is a player that is running around creating chaos, and while that might be true to a point, he is almost always in the right place at the right time. That is beyond a matter of luck and is a product of being an intelligent, athletic linebacker. French sees things quickly, has the strength to fight off the blockers that are preventing him from reaching his target, and the speed to scrape down the line, close, and bring down a ball carrier rapidly. While French is a large defender and his tackles deliver a blow, he is a form tackler above everything else. When French gets his hands on a ball carrier, the play is effectively over. That is true of running backs, tight ends, and quarterbacks. French has the tools to do every job asked of a middle linebacker. He can play downhill against the run and thump, he can cover ground sideline to sideline as a tackling machine, he has the speed to run with tight ends and backs in pass coverage, and he has the speed and pass rush moves to serve as a highly effective blitzer. Martavius French is as complete a linebacker as any coach could want physically and mentally. He is capable of doing any job, in any scheme or sub-package, that is asked of him, and he can do it will. French is highly intelligent and an outstanding natural leader. Tennessee fans just hope he is playing many more games in the Orange and White gloves he wore against White Station.
Matt Ray is the managing content editor for VR2. He founded VR2 in November of 2017. He is an FWAA Member and covers Tennessee prospects across the country from the Opening Regional Camp series to Under Armour All-American game and everything in between.