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What the Whitehaven Trio Bring to The Table

by | Oct 23, 2019

After going two months without adding a single commitment to their 2020 recruiting class, the Tennessee Volunteers landed three on Tuesday night. Not only did the Vols land three players, they landed a trio of four-star defenders, all from Whitehaven in Memphis. Bryson Eason, Martavius French, and Tamarion McDonald have been on Tennessee’s radar for some time now, with Eason and French having been longtime, high priority targets for the Vols. McDonald had been a player the Vols were watching since they saw him at a camp, but when Jeremy Pruitt came to watch Whitehaven and offered him in person during Tennessee’s bye week, everything changed for him. McDonald had been committed to Mississippi State, and French to Arkansas, but the offer to McDonald changed the game for all three players.

Eason, French, and McDonald have been playing football together since their elementary school days. These three are incredibly close, and have talked for years about playing together in the SEC. Though they did all hold offers from Mississippi State at one time, Tennessee was the first SEC program that all three of the trio of friends had interest in that made an offer to each of them. The offer to McDonald by Pruitt meant that the Vols were not only interested in all three players, but they were highly interested in each of them. No one player was an add-on to be part of a package deal. The Vols wanted each one of the Tiger defenders as individuals, and if they could land all three, they felt that each of them could contribute.

A week after McDonald was offered, all three prospects were at Tennessee on an official visit for the Georgia-Tennessee game. They were impressed with the effort that the Vols showed in a loss to the Bulldogs, and they came away feeling that Tennessee just needed more talented players to compete. Players like the three of them. The next week they were back in Memphis to play White Station high school, and Eason and French took the field in Tennessee gear. In post-game interviews, each player spoke about the love that the Vols had showed them, and how they felt they needed to show it back. While statements like this are somewhat common in recruiting stories, the comments in these interviews felt different. The fact that Tennessee had made them a priority and had tried to show love to these players meant something to them. They were clearly swayed by Tennessee’s pitch, their visit, and the gameday atmosphere of Neyland Stadium, but it was more than that. There was almost a sense of loyalty, an obligation to represent a school that had been good to all three of them. Watching Eason, French, and McDonald play, and talking with them after their win over White Station, that loyalty came further into focus in terms of how they operate.

Each of these Whitehaven defenders is a stud in his own right. Each one is a player that any program in the country would be incredibly excited to add and would rank as one of the top recruits in their class. That said, it is difficult to talk about one of them without bringing up all three. In terms of a defensive unit at Whitehaven, it is difficult to talk about the individual members of that unit. Whitehaven Head Coach Rodney Saulsberry has created a special culture on his football team. Not only has he grown a program capable of competing for and winning state titles, he has put together a team that supports, polices, and leads from within, and the trio of new Tennessee commits are central to that culture. During warmups the team is lead by Eason, French, and McDonald, each taking a section of the team and each calling out various exercises. During a game, when anyone on defense makes a play, the entire unit swarms to celebrate. There is a trust internally within the entire defensive unit that is rare to see, and it is a key to the Tigers having one of the best defenses in all of high school football. The players on that unit trust one another to make plays. They play within the scheme, even if it means that they have to eat a blocker and be neutralized in order to allow a teammate to make a play. While Whitehaven has a star-studded defensive unit, they don’t play with a star attitude. Each player on that defense is playing for the man next to him, trusting him, and playing for the greater success of the unit. When talented players buy wholeheartedly into that kind of system, greatness is the result, as evidenced by Whitehaven. During their interviews, Eason, French, and McDonald each talked about playing for their teammates, trusting them, and being part of a greater whole. This wasn’t coach speak or lip service, each of them brought it up independently, sincerely meant each word, and showed it on the field. These three defenders bring that unselfish, trusting, team-first leadership to Knoxville now, and should be looked at as players expected to lead in creating the kind of culture Jeremy Pruitt wants on Rocky Top. Along with those intangibles, each member of this Whitehaven trio brings unique and substantial talent.

Bryson Eason is the man in the middle for the operation that the Tigers run, and that is exactly where he should figure in for the Vols as well. Eason arrives on campus with SEC size. At six feet two inches, Eason is listed at two hundred fifty pounds. After seeing him in person twice so far this season, that should be amended to at least two hundred fifty pounds. He looks to be playing at closer to two hundred sixty pounds, and Eason is not carrying bad weight. This is a big, thick linebacker that has elite strength and technique for the position. Eason welcomes contact and fights off and through blocks with ease. He has a high football IQ and trusts what he sees within framework of the defense. Eason is rarely out of position on a play thanks to his quick reads and his good footspeed. Even at his size, Eason is a sideline to sideline tackling machine. He is fast and fluid enough to drop into coverage and be an asset to the defense there, just as he is also capable of unleashing a stunning first step when rushing the quarterback. All that considered, Eason is still at his best as a sideline to sideline thumper. He is difficult to block, fast enough to get to any play on the field, and technically sound enough that when he has an opportunity at a tackle, the play ends. Eason is a hard hitter because of his size, speed and strength, but he delivers those blows with textbook tackling rather than selling out for highlight reel shots. With Tennessee’s depth issues at inside linebacker and Eason’s skillset, this young man should be in the mix for a starting role as soon as he arrives on campus.

Martavius French is slightly smaller than Eason, six feet two inches and two hundred forty pounds, but he is also slightly faster. French is a highly instinctive player that always looks to be attacking on film. He attacks gaps, ball carriers, blockers, and the ball when he is in coverage. French is another big linebacker that can fly for his size. He is not bothered when engaged by offensive linemen, showing that he can regularly get off blocks, fight through them, scrape free, and get to the ball carrier. Because of his speed and excellent instincts, it is incredibly difficult to turn the corner on French, the combination of quickly identifying and reacting to a play coupled with outstanding speed leads to many blown up plays. French’s instincts are difficult to quantify, but he is a player that always seems to be in the right place at the right time. Some of that is extensive film study paying off, some is a high football IQ, but some is just being able to feel where a play is going and think one step ahead. French will gamble at time to time on a play, but he wins those gambles far more than he loses them. If he is wrong, his excellent speed helps him make up for most errors, as do the teammates he trusts so much. French is capable of being a sideline to sideline, football-seeking missile, and he excels at the role, but he is also gifted as a vertical defender. What that expression means is that French is adept at dropping into coverage where his speed and fluid change of direction allow him to take away talented receiving options. He is also gifted as a downhill linebacker, blitzing gaps on the run and pressuring opposing quarterbacks. French is also a very sound, form tackling linebacker. He arrives with a crack to most ballcarriers, with an explosive final step into them, but he wraps up and ensures they wind up on the ground. French is also the vocal leader for Whitehaven. While all three players take that vocal leadership role, French is the most vocal. He is the battery that constantly pumps energy into his team whether he is on the field, in warmups, celebrating a victory, or standing on the bench cheering on his offense.

While Eason and French are both going to be playing at inside linebacker for the Vols most of the time, though Eason could see some sub package work as a pass rushing defensive end and French could play some outside backer, Tamarion McDonald is more difficult to nail down. At six feet one inch tall and two hundred twenty pounds, McDonald is on the line between being a small, fast weakside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme and a big, heavy hitting safety in the SEC. McDonald plays linebacker for Whitehaven, but he also plays significant snaps at safety, along with snaps all over the defense. McDonald is smaller than what Tennessee typically uses as an outside linebacker in their base 3-4 defense, but that isn’t to say he has no spot for the Vols. McDonald is a chess piece, a hybrid type of player that coaches can move all over the field, which is exactly what Pruitt and Defensive Coordinator Derrick Ansley are going to do. In Tennessee’s base 3-4, expect to see McDonald playing as a hard hitting, in the box safety. That is not to say McDonald lacks in coverage, he absolutely has the speed to be an SEC safety. Now, McDonald is not going to be asked to cover elite speed receivers in the conference one on one often, but he is fast enough to be an asset when the ball is in the air. However, that linebacker attitude shows up when he can come downhill and attack the runner. It also shows up when he arrives at a receiver the same time the ball does, showing there is more than one way to break up a pass, as he prefers to knock away the receiver rather than the ball. McDonald should be looked at in Tennessee’s sub packages on defense as well, likely playing snaps as a nickel corner and linebacker on passing downs. McDonald is an excellent blitzer with great speed and acceleration, a willing run defender, and a good tackler. McDonald, more so than his teammates, does have the knack for delivering a knockout hit. He is a solid form tackler, rarely failing to bring a runner down, but he does seem to find a way to arrive with bone jarring hits quite frequently. Rather than wonder what position McDonald fits into, Jeremy Pruitt realized that he had found an excellent player that could help him at multiple levels of the defense in multiple alignments.

The impact that these three players should make for Tennessee cannot be overstated. They are all elite athletes, outstanding leaders, and team first players. Each is the kind of player a coach can build a scheme around. Together, they can be the cornerstone of building the kind of culture Jeremy Pruitt wants to see at Tennessee, one that mirrors what they helped to build at Whitehaven. Eason, French, and McDonald, as a unit, are capable of helping to change the trajectory of an entire program. Tennessee has gone into Memphis and pulled out three of the top in-state players in the 2020 cycle, all of them likely immediate contributors on the field, all of them assets in the locker room. This is a huge set of commitments for Tennessee for what the Whitehaven trio brings, but also because it could set the stage for a serious recruiting run down the stretch to National Signing Day.

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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