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Friday Night Files: Tamarion McDonald

Oct 30, 2019

Human nature is to want to label things. People inherently want to have a name for something. In the world of recruiting, that often comes about in determining what position a player will fill at the next level. The talent jump from different high schools to competing in college is drastically varied, and high school coaches have to be concerned first and foremost with winning high school games. That might mean a player that is being recruited as a 3-4 defensive end in college plays a significant amount of tight end, or that a player that is being looked at as a Power Five safety is at quarterback since he is the best athlete on the team. The way positions change and how well college staffs can forecast where a recruit should play at the next level are skills that make the difference in good and great staff. After all, a player that can’t find a home or lacks a natural position where he can thrive in a scheme is severely limited in the impact he can make, regardless of his talent. This is a situation that Tennessee fans have been all too familiar with in recent years, as they are forced to watch excellent athletes waste away on the sidelines as their talent is never maximized from playing out of position or they never develop from all the position changes. These risks are why Power Five schools like to recruit guys that they can clearly identify a spot for. If a player is a natural fit for a position in their system, an obvious plug and play athlete, the risk of mislabeling them is minimal. These labels can hurt players, however, where versatility can raise the question of, “What is he at the next level?” That question can make teams be too cautious about a clearly impactful player that just needs an opportunity to get on the field. Four-star Whitehaven defender Tamarion McDonald is one such athlete.

McDonald is one of the key contributors on the Whitehaven defense that is among the elite in the nation. He serves as one of the leaders for the Tigers on the field along with his four-star teammates Martavius French and Bryson Eason. This trio has been integral in growing a special culture and attitude for Whitehaven. They are the leaders of a defense that plays technically sound, high intelligence, unselfish, fundamental football. This is a unit that talks about trusting their teammates, about taking their assignment, even if it means another player has to make the tackle because they trust them to make it. McDonald, French, and Eason are all evident in the mindset of this defense and the leadership of the unit. The unselfish nature that McDonald plays with stands out. He trusts the other players on his unit to clean up the mess when the coaches ask him to go cause general chaos, and he trusts them to open the way for him when the staff needs him to make a play that he can best make. More than that, McDonald has shown his unselfishness in his willingness to move all over the field for the Tigers. McDonald has logged snaps at both safety spots, as a corner, an outside linebacker, inside linebacker, and defensive end. That unselfishness and willingness to play wherever he could best help his team damaged his individual recruiting a bit, as it led to coaches being unsure where to put him at the next level. After seeing him in person, it became clear that the answer to that question was simply, “Put him on the field and let a playmaker play.” This sentiment was shared by Jeremy Pruitt, who came to see Whitehaven shutout Cordova on Tennessee’s bye week when he offered McDonald a scholarship to play for Tennessee that night.

In truth, McDonald is made to play for coaches like Pruitt and defensive coordinator Derek Ansley. The pair of Tennessee coaches are noted for running complex defensive schemes, sub-packages, and utilizing players that can fill multiple roles and positions well. In other words, Pruitt and Ansley prize defenders that are versatile enough to help their defenses by doing different jobs from various positions, something Tamarion McDonald already excels at. McDonald is six feet one inch tall and weighs two hundred twenty pounds. That makes him a smaller outside linebacker and a big safety. That size combination is one of the things to initially make McDonald difficult to forecast, but his skillset is what makes it the hardest for coaches. The great challenge comes to the coaches not because he has many deficiencies, but rather his attributes make him a valuable contributor across the defense.

McDonald is fast enough to play safety in the SEC. He may not be among the fastest safeties in the league, but he certainly has the foot speed to be an asset in coverage on tight ends, running backs, and even some slot receivers. McDonald has an explosive first step, and he has fluid hips even grading him out as a defensive back. His hips mean that McDonald has outstanding change of direction, and his explosion means that when he does change direction, he is a sudden athlete capable of accelerating quickly. McDonald has drawn some occasional snaps at the corner position for Whitehaven, and he said that Jeremy Pruitt had mentioned potentially playing him in some situations as a nickel corner. Matched up on a slot wide receiver, McDonald could have some struggles against elite speed and short-area quickness at the position. That said, McDonald does have good speed and his size advantage over most receivers he would be asked to cover would be telling down the field in a jump ball situation. Furthermore, with his thick frame and physicality, McDonald would have a major advantage when attempting to press a receiver or when coming up into run support. McDonald tackles with good form, but he shows a knack for delivering a big hit, especially when closing on a receiver in space. He is adept at separating the ball and the receiver when he arrives to deliver a blow, whether as a safety or corner.

While McDonald plays considerable time at a safety for Whitehaven, and while he could help the secondary for the Volunteers, he also plays significant snaps as an outside linebacker. Playing around Martavius French and Bryson Eason means that McDonald can be moved all around the box when he is playing in the front seven for the Tigers. He may line up looking like a safety but playing the role of a linebacker. Similarly, he may line up as a slot corner and come on a linebacker blitz. He also can look to take a standard outside linebacker spot in a 4-3, then bail and cover a tight end in man coverage as a safety. This versatility makes McDonald difficult to identify for opposing offenses, but he is a player they must be aware of every play. Failure to account for him will often end in disaster. McDonald has a nose for the ball, but perhaps more so, he has a nose for the quarterback. The Tigers like bringing their do-it-all defender from off the edge as a linebacker when they want to generate pressure on the passer. McDonald shines when asked to run to the wide side of the field, set an edge, and take down a ball carrier using his speed to get there and his strength and explosive tackling to end the play. Still, he looks even better coming off the edge of the formation on a pass rush. Many offensive linemen struggle to deal with his acceleration and speed, but he has the strength and hand technique to fight through and shed a block if he is picked up. Backs often can’t match his strength, particularly when he has a running start, which means that he closes on the quarterback with a predator’s intentions, arriving with jarring hits.

McDonald is a player that can tick every box for a quality SEC strong safety, nickel corner, and outside linebacker. In Tennessee’s base 3-4, it is unlikely McDonald will play much outside backer, but in their sub-packages he is a natural fit for coverage, blitzing, and run support. He could be an every-down, sledgehammer safety for Tennessee, and a great run supporting, highly physical corner in the slot. Only needing to learn three positions would be less than McDonald has needed to do for the Tigers, and he could help Tennessee in multiple areas across their defense. For Jeremy Pruitt, McDonald is simply an intimidating, explosive, playmaking defender that is an asset wherever he is on the field. In his defense, it would be opponents left asking, “What is he?” as they anxiously try to identify McDonald’s role on that play and hoping that they don’t guess wrong. Tamarion McDonald is a football player that plays defense with controlled, well-aimed violence, and bad things tend to happen for the offense around him. He is concerned with helping his teammates stop their opponents wherever he lines up, let them try to figure out what he is while they are forced to game plan around him.


Brandon Martin

Brandon Martin

Senior Recruiting Analyst

Brandon Martin is from the mountains of southeast Tennessee, a proud alumnus of ETSU, and has ended up living in Nashville after stints in Memphis and the Tri-Cities.

Football season takes him all over the Southeast, covering games in the Nashville-Middle Tennessee region, East Tennessee, Memphis-West Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, Mississippi, and Virginia. He covers all things UT with a focus on Recruiting and Tennessee Basketball. If you see him at a game, please, come say hello.

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