Freshman To’o To’o gets a foot up on competition

Friday, September 20, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 38
By Rhiannon Potkey

The college game is starting to “slowly slow down” for freshman linebacker Henry To’o To’o.

-- Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

Henry To’o To’o has given announcers a reason to grab the pronunciation guide because they know they will be calling his name multiple times.

The Tennessee freshman linebacker has made an instant impact for the Vols and provided hope for a brighter future amid a somber start.

Although To’o To’o (TOE-o TOE-o) didn’t arrive in Knoxville until early June, he’s been a starter from the opening game. The Sacramento native is Tennessee’s No. 2 tackler with 17 – including seven in his college debut – and leads the Vols in tackles for loss (2.5)

“I just expected myself to be able to contribute to the team,” To’o To’o says. “I wanted to be a part of something special, and I wanted to be able to help these guys around here, my brothers, the best way that I can.”

To’o To’o will be taking another step in the transition process Saturday when the Vols (1-2) open SEC play against rival Florida (3-0) at The Swamp in Gainesville. The road trip will be the first for Tennessee after starting the season with three straight home games.

Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt expects the freshmen to be ready for their initial foray into hostile territory.

“It’s about execution. Knowing what to do, how to do it, and why it’s important to do it that way, getting prepared throughout the week,” Pruitt says. “You create the right habits during the week, and to me, it’s fun going on the road.

“I like going on the road. You find out who you are. Everybody is against you. You see a little bit about your character. It’ll be good for us.”

After an uninspiring start to the season that led to national mockery following an upset loss to Georgia State and a double-overtime loss to BYU marred by massive breakdowns down the stretch, the Vols got back on track last weekend against Chattanooga.

They soundly defeated the FCS program 45-0, dominating in all phases of the game and allowing for liberal substitutions to get players more experience.

But the Vols know the level of competition escalates greatly in the SEC.

Florida is coming off a 29-21 comeback victory over Kentucky. Led by backup quarterback Kyle Trask, the Gators scored 19 fourth quarter points. Trask replaced starter Feleipe Franks, lost for the season with a dislocated and fractured ankle.

“This guy is plenty capable, you saw it the other night,” Pruitt says of Trask, a redshirt junior. “Very efficient in what they did. They didn’t really change much of who they are. The guy’s plenty capable, he’s a big strong guy that’s got a good arm and he’s physical in the run game.”

To’o To’o and the Vols defense are hoping to rattle Trask. The freshman already has shown he’s a star in the making with his impressive transition to college.

Unlike other true freshman starters, To’o To’o didn’t participate in spring practice as an early enrollee. But the 6-foot-2, 232-pound De La Salle High graduate quickly made up for lost time.

Although he tried to learn as much as possible about UT’s defense before arriving in June, To’o To’o’s greatest growth has come from being immersed in practices and film study with the help of his teammates.

“You’ve just got to know everything. Everything connects,” explains To’o To’o, who was the first true freshman to lead the Vols in tackles (seven) in a season opener since Dwayne Goodrich in 1996. “There’s pieces to the puzzle that you may not know, but you need to know. That makes this whole defense work as one.”

The more snaps of live game action he gets under his belt, the more comfortable To’o To’o feels.

“It’s starting to slowly slow down,” To’o To’o adds. “As a freshman, you go from high school to college and everybody’s bigger, faster and stronger. Just being able to adjust, I feel like every day I go out it’ll get better.”

Off the field, the cultural change to the South remains ongoing for To’o To’o

“It’s totally different. California is a lot faster,” he says. “In California, everything moves fast. In Knoxville, out here it’s a slower pace. … I like a slower pace. It gives me time to be able to focus on myself and the things I have that’s important to me.”

On the other side of the ball, true freshman running back Eric Gray didn’t travel as far to contribute immediately. The Memphis native has 32 carries for 138 yards and nine catches for 60 yards.

Gray has teamed with sophomore Ty Chandler in the Tennessee backfield.

“I feel like it’s thunder and lightning,” Gray says. “Ty’s a great mentor. He’s helped me day-to-day on different things. I feel like we feel more comfortable as a team.”

Tennessee’s freshmen will need to be ready to embrace this weekend’s challenge. Their first SEC game, on the road, against a big rival.

But given the team’s start to the season, the Vols have nothing to lose and no expectations. They’ve seen the passion from fans when things are going bad, and want to give them something positive to cheer about for the future.

Patience may not be an easy concept to grasp in the SEC, but that’s the rallying cry in the locker room.

“That’s the message for everyone. Everyone’s saying that we’re going to be better,” Gray adds. “You can feel it in the atmosphere that we’re on the verge of being something special.”