The year before Josh Heupel took over as Tennessee's football coach, Bryson Eason was a 6-foot-2, 255-pound freshman inside linebacker.
Eason is now a 6-3, 310-pound redshirt junior defensive tackle who has made three consecutive starts for the No. 17 Volunteers as they prepare for Saturday's showdown (3:30 on CBS) at No. 11 Alabama.
"It hasn't been hard at all," Eason said this week in a news conference when asked about his position shift. "It's just something that I had to embrace. It was new for sure, but I'm not going to say it was hard, because I love the game of football, and I just want to play it. Whatever I get to do, I'm going to do it. It's just been cool.
"It was very, very challenging there at first, just trying to understand the details, being so close to the ball and how physical it is, but once you love doing something, you'll get it down regardless."
Eason, the nation's No. 16 inside linebacker in the 2020 signing class out of Whitehaven High School in Memphis, has tallied 15 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two quarterback pressures and one sack this season. The Vols will travel to Tuscaloosa ranked 17th nationally in both total defense (allowing 303.0 yards per game) and scoring defense (17.0), and they are coming off a 20-13 triumph over Texas A&M in which they limited the Aggies to 277 total yards.
The stat line for Eason against Texas A&M contained two tackles, one tackle for loss and one quarterback hurry.
"You've just seen Bryson come in and embrace being a defensive tackle," senior defensive tackle Omari Thomas said. "Bryson is one of those guys who brings energy. He's always positive and never negative, and he's always uplifting to the people around him.
"He's just a real good person in general, and I'm happy for what all he's done."
Eason played in six games as a freshman in 2020, with most of his action on special teams, and three more in 2021, when he collected two tackles for loss in Heupel's debut contest against Bowling Green before redshirting that year. Listed for the first time last season as a defensive lineman, Eason racked up 18 tackles with 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.
His first career start took place in the 31-14 downing of Clemson in last December's Orange Bowl.
"I do think there has been a consistent and constant growth from him throughout our time here with him," Heupel said. "I do feel like late in training camp and in the early part of this season, the consistency of his mindset, being able to attack every rep every single day, changed and continued to mature. That is why he is playing the way that he is.
"He is becoming a really good practice player, and you can count on him being consistent every single day. That has led to his growth and him playing the way that he is inside."
Eason has resided under the radar a little this season with sophomore edge rusher James Pearce Jr. and senior inside linebacker Aaron Beasley grabbing a lot of the headlines, but he seems fine with that.
"I feel like I've been having a pretty decent year," Eason said. "I just want to be the best version of myself and be the best player I can for the guys to my left and right. I want to continue to play for them. It's bigger than me. I want to play for the 'T.'
"There is so much room for improvement for me. I want to continue to play hard and continue to do whatever I can to just produce for the team. Whatever they need, I want to do."
Who's got cigars?
The winning members of the Alabama-Tennessee game have lit up victory cigars for more than half a century, with each side getting to experience that tradition once in the past two years.
Tennessee officials had the cigars ready last October despite the Vols having lost 15 consecutive series meetings, so who's responsible for bringing them to Tuscaloosa in case Tennessee makes it two straight?
"I'm going to be honest with you, that's the first time I've thought about that," Heupel said on Wednesday's SEC teleconference. "This week there is enough to do in our preparation to get ready for these guys."
Contact David Paschall at [email protected].