May 16, 2016
The entire college football world now seems to be in full-on “show me” mode with the Tennessee football program, which is expected to blow up in 2016 and live up to all the hype that has the Volunteers firmly back in the national picture.
Recruits are taking the same approach.
After three quality recruiting classes signed by UT coach Butch Jones in the past three cycles outfitted the Vols with one of the most talented, experienced rosters in all of college football, folks want to see that translate into wins.
If the Vols can accomplish that this year, the recruiting floodgates should reopen on Rocky Top.
SB Nation recruiting analyst Bud Elliott noted recently that in order for UT to take the next step, the Ws must pile up:
For now, Tennessee fans have to wait and hope. A recruiting cycle that looked so promising early on with the quick commitments of 5-star quarterback Hunter Johnson, elite receiver Tee Higgins and North Carolina defensive end Jordon Riley has hit some rocky terrain.
All of those players decommitted, and while Johnson has pledged to Clemson and Riley to the Tar Heels and are out of the picture, Higgins still has the Vols right in the mix along with the Tigers, Florida State and many other suitors.
Even with a banner year in the Volunteer State for prospects, not a single one of Tennessee’s current commits hail from within state lines, and while UT is in the mix for a lot of that top-notch talent, no pledges from the close-to-home prospects are imminent.
In the last cycle, Tennessee’s slow start picked up once the Vols did during the season. The Vols wound up 14th nationally and seventh in the league in ’15 but filled a ton of needs in a respectable class that was top-heavy with marquee players and included a lot of developmental prospects.
This year, the Vols are in on a whole lot of national names whose recruitments may go deeper into the cycle, including a lot of in-state kids. But they haven’t pulled the trigger yet, as UT currently sits 31st nationally and seventh in the league with its seven pledges.
With a full slate of 25 signees expected, there will be a ton of movement and a ton of time in which to boost those rankings. For now, let’s take a look at some early grades for the recruiting on Rocky Top.
Tennessee desperately must sign some playmakers on offense, especially considering that quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara are all expected to be trying their hands at the NFL next year.
While signal-caller isn’t a pressing need with Quinten Dormady, Sheriron Jones and Jarrett Guarantano all on the roster, the Vols always want to find one in each class. That hasn’t been easy this year after Johnson bolted. Miami commitment N’Kosi Perry is one player UT has tried who hasn’t responded to overtures.
It’s probable the Vols will find their quarterback during the summer camp circuit, but getting a key player at that position is up in the air right now. There aren’t many viable prospects.
One of the two biggest needs in the entire class, however, is signing a premier running back (or two).
Right now, that search is squarely focused on Cam Akers, Ty Chandler and Chase Hayden. While there are other runners out there with Tennessee offers, if this class comes and goes without UT signing one of the former two and inking legacy Hayden, the son of former Vols runner Aaron Hayden, it’s a strikeout season.
At this point of the recruiting cycle, you can’t really expect to have a national recruit like Akers or Chandler in the fold, but the Vols’ efforts need to secure at least one of them. Getting Hayden to commit would be a strong piece of the recruiting puzzle, too.
So far, the Vols’ offensive class is about who they don’t have as much as who they do. It’s vital that Tennessee sign two running backs, a couple more receivers and a pair of premier offensive linemen.
With in-state players such as Chandler, Higgins, Hayden and offensive tackle Trey Smith uncommitted, the Vols could still hit a home run with needs met inside state borders this year. But they must get at least a couple of those guys.
Nixon is an early-cycle gem, a speed-burning receiver with offers from Texas, Baylor, Oklahoma, Ohio State and others. If the Vols can hang on to him, it’ll be a major snag from the Lone Star State.
Rogers has flown a bit under the national radar so far, but the 3-star tight end has offers from Ole Miss, Mississippi State, California and some other nice schools. The Vols are big on tight ends, and after taking two a year ago, they were going to be picky. So you know they had to like Rogers to take him so early.
Even so, the Vols’ grade here is hurt more by who they haven’t got committed yet and the fact that there are only two pledges on that side of the ball so far. They really need to bulk up the class on offense, and of course, they will.
Early Grade: C-
The ratings may not bear it out, but the Vols have three very good defenders committed already for the 2017 recruiting class, and there are a couple of other linebackers with upsides in the fold as well.
Two Atlanta-area linebackers aren’t highly rated, and it’ll be interesting to see where they fit in, with the Vols firmly in the mix for some elite targets at that position. Mo Burnham committed to Tennessee in early March, and there hasn’t been much discussion about him since.
Last year, the Vols took an early commitment from Memphis ‘backer Tim Hart, who wound up signing with the hometown Tigers, so it will be interesting to see if a player like Burnham, who isn’t a physical monster, blows up or flames out.
Solon Page III from Kell High School in Marietta, Georgia, didn’t have a ton of big offers, but the Vols recruited him for a long time and love his game, so it will be fun to see if the ratings services ultimately feel the same as UT does about him.
It was a big blow on Friday when Chandler Wooten pledged to Auburn over UT, per AL.com’s Wesley Sinor. He was a guy the Vols really wanted and will continue to recruit.
Beyond Burnham and Page, there shouldn’t be any questions about Tennessee’s other three defensive commits.
Cheyenne Labruzza is a 5’11”, 186-pound cornerback from Albany, Louisiana, with an LSU offer (among many others). So while he may be rated as a 3-star prospect, it’s always impressive to get a player from that state with a Bayou Bengals offer.
It’s also next to impossible to hold on to a player with one, so the Vols have a battle on their hands to keep him in the class. The Tigers are already coming hard, he told NOLA.com’s James Smith:
Within the last two weeks of my process, I was wavering between LSU, Tennessee and Florida. Of course LSU was a school I was highly interested in. It’s DBU [Defensive Back University] and I have great relationships with the staff. It’s just that my two trips to Tennessee really made a statement to me. It felt like home, like the right place for me and my family. Now LSU and Tennessee are going back and forth recruiting me.
Then there’s defensive end Marquez Bembry, who just ran a 10.68 100-meter dash to finish second in the state of Georgia at 6’3″, 215 pounds. He may just be a 3-star player, but he’s a freakish athlete UT could add some weight to and make another scary edge-rusher.
Bembry already is drawing praise from recruiting analysts such as 247Sports’ Steve Wiltfong regarding his athletic ability:
And while we’re talking about Tennessee’s class and focusing on the defensive line, [defensive tackle Eric] Crosby and Marquez Bembry will be a nice combination. Bembry has sub 11.0 second speed in the 100-meter dash. I continue to believe the Vols got a steal in him out of the Peach State, a guy who will ultimately be a blur rushing off the edge.
Finally, saving UT’s most important commitment for last, if running back is the Vols’ biggest need in this cycle, defensive tackle must be a close second. They really need to sign six or seven defensive linemen in this class, and they’ve already received a pledge from one of their top targets.
Eric Crosby—a 6’1″, 297-pound defensive tackle from Ocean Lakes, Virginia—is a massive commit for multiple reasons.
No. 1, he’s a great player at a major need position. Secondly, he makes the Vols a hot name in a vital recruiting area, and if Jordan Williams and Breyon Gaddy follow, that could be a massive haul from the same area. Throw in Tennessee prospect Rutger Reitmaier, for whom the Vols are firmly in the mix, and it could be a big year on the defensive line.
Hanging on to Crosby would ensure a strong start.
WAVY TV’s Nathan Epstein reported that Crosby was recently extended an offer to play in the U.S. Army All-American Game, too. So that’s more UT hype coming in a national game.
While there is still much work to be done and major targets such as Maleik Gray, Deangelo Gibbs, JaCoby Stevens and others on the board, the Vols are doing pretty well recruiting on that side of the ball. They need some more playmakers, but it’s where they want to be at this stage.
Early Grade: B+
It would be sugarcoating it to say this class is ideally where the Vols want it to be right now; it isn’t.
But with a ton of top targets remaining on the board, the steady trickle of visitors coming to Knoxville on a weekly basis and the camp and event circuit about to heat up, Tennessee is firmly in the position to boost the class and that ranking.
Getting a few players on board in a cluster could really set things off. With the Title IX lawsuit being out of the news now for several weeks and with the preseason rankings leaking out and the Vols being near the top, the positive publicity could begin outweighing a forgettable few months of the offseason.
It will ultimately hinge on wins, though. If the Vols live up to expectations, Jones already has proved to be too strong a recruiter to flame out this quickly. He’ll get some really good players, and the Vols will finish with a top-five class in the SEC, which is always good for a top-10-12 ranking.
The facts are that this class isn’t super-strong right now, but it’s also very much in its infancy. The Vols are a couple of big commits away from being right back on the tips of prospects’ tongues for a fourth year in a row.
Early Overall Grade: B-
All quotes and information gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information gathered from 247Sports unless otherwise noted. All stats gathered at CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.
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