Good news. Yes, you read that right. Good news. If you’re a Tennessee fan and are actively engaged after a tumultuous decade, you are likely accustomed to looking for the silver lining. The last couple weeks left much to be desired on the field, but there were signs of hope earlier in the year. There are many reasons to be optimistic going forward, with recruiting playing a central role in that. Jeremy Pruitt is a former national recruiter of the year. He is noted for being relational and insatiable on the recruiting trail. These traits have helped build a formidable class, well positioned to find its way into the top 10 by the time February has come and gone.
The introduction of the early signing period last year added some drama to the holidays with many of the big names signing in December. The early signing period proved to be one of Coach Pruitt’s largest hurdles in his first month on the job. With two weeks to change the minds of recruits who had spent months or years developing relationships with different staffs, the task was tall. The 2018 class was not nationally heralded, but given the lack of time, Pruitt was able to assemble a strong class. Several players contributed early on both sides of the ball. This was best seen in the secondary, where Alontae Taylor, Bryce Thompson, and Trevon Flowers shone bright at different points throughout the season.
Moving forward, the class of 2019 will be a better indicator of the coaches’ recruiting ability. Pruitt and the staff have had time to identify the guys best suited for the program and build relationships with them and the class of 2019 will likely crack the top ten if Pruitt is able to secure a few of the big-name targets that are remaining on our board. A large emphasis has been placed on the trenches this recruiting period. A group breakdown to follow starting with the offensive line:
Wanya Morris is the crown jewel of the class thus far. He is widely considered one of the best offensive lineman in the country and is a consensus five-star tackle. Cherry picked out of Georgia’s backyard, Wanya plans to enroll early and practice with the team throughout the spring semester. He is similar in caliber to Trey Smith and will likely be asked to contribute early and often. Jackson Lampley is an in-state four-star prospect who plans to factor in at guard. Melvin McBride is a offensive lineman from Memphis who will likely play guard in the future. Chris Akporoghene is a three-star but looks to be a prospect with a lot of upside. Chris is initially from Nigeria and only started playing football within the last few years. Physically speaking, He looks as imposing and ready as any lineman in the class or on our roster not named Trey Smith, but he will likely need time to be polished into a SEC-caliber lineman due to being relatively new to the sport. He also provides a connection to high school powerhouse IMG Academy in Florida, renowned for pumping players into D1 schools.
On the other side of the trench, three-star junior college (JUCO) prospects Savion Williams and Darel Middleton will be asked to contribute early, as Tennessee loses all four starters across the defensive line. Neither are enrolling early, which will mean they will have to learn quickly upon arriving over the summer. Savion Williams is the highest rated junior college defensive tackle in this years class. Roman Harrison, who could either play end or outside linebacker, was identified early on in the recruiting process by Pruitt and the staff. Roman is now beginning to receive national recognition for his performances as an undersized defensive tackle. He looks to be a great early find by the staff. Elijah Simmons is an in-state nose tackle, who is built similar to Vince Wilfork, weighing in close to 350, measuring just over six foot tall. He plays with a high motor and can be disruptive with leverage and mass both working in his favor. LeDarrius Cox is a defensive tackle who has been committed to UT for a while but may be wavering. It will be interesting to see if he sticks the pledge he in the spring.
Jalil Clemons is another guy that the staff identified early on in the process. He committed over the summer, choosing UT over hometown favorite Mississippi State. Jalil Clemons has a rare combination of quickness and strength that is required for elite pass rushers. Look for him to have a great career at UT as an outside linebacker or defensive end. Rated as the best junior college inside linebacker in the country, Lakia Henry (JUCO) is an early enrollee and will likely factor in next season at inside linebacker.
At quarterback, Brian Maurer is a solid addition and will add competition at the position this spring as he plans to enroll early this January. Maurer had strong showings over the summer at the prestigious Elite 11 finals and finished in the top half of the nation’s best quarterbacks. Maurer likely will not be a factor for playing time in the fall, barring injuries, but will kick his time at UT off on the right foot, being exposed to the offense and spring practice, putting him a semester ahead in his development. It is worth noting that Maurer was recruited by departing offensive coordinator, Ty Helton, but all indications are that he will stay true to his pledge.
Running back is thin for this class up to this point. (Our remaining targets are listed at the end of the positional breakdown, which is particularly relevant for this position.) The lone commit who could play running back at this point is Aaron Beasley. Speculation initially placed Beasley at safety or potentially even in the star role, but Beasley may end up getting his first shot at running back with Banks likely moving to linebacker for next season.
At Tight End, Tennessee has two promising prospects in the fold, Jackson Lowe and Sean Brown. Both prospects are from Georgia and look to have the skill and strength to be a factor in the running game and passing game. Jackson Lowe is a four star prospect, and if I had to pick a favorite of the two, it would be him, but I expect both to make solid contributions to the university in the years to come. Lowe is also capable of contributing at defensive end, if needed. Pruitt is seemingly making a habit of recruiting versatile players. Lowe is further evidence of that.
Ramel Keyton is a highly-rated four star and is the lone wide receiver commit of the class at this point. He is an early enrollee and was having a stellar senior campaign before injuries forced him to sit out the second half of his season. When healthy, he looked to be one of the best receivers in the country. Keyton is one of the most exciting prospects in the class. Look for him to be a star for the next few years.
With a strong 2018 secondary class, Pruitt adds another class that is rich in depth and quality. Jaylen McCoullough expects to be an early enrollee and is another highly rated four-star. He looks the part on film and with the extra reps he will receive this spring semester, he will likely see the field some next season as a safety. Tyus Fields is the son of Mark Fields who spent a decade in the NFL as a linebacker. He has the pedigree and the tools to be a great cornerback for the university going forward. He is rated as a four star and is one of two four-star defensive back commits from North Carolina. The other is Anthony Harris. Harris is a tremendous athlete who has spent the season primarily playing quarterback for his team. Pruitt is a renowned secondary coach, and it will be interesting to follow Anthony Harris’s development during his time here. He is a special athlete, and could be a special defensive back, given time to develop and learn under Pruitt. Warren Burrell is a guy who will likely play corner in the future. He is quick and has good size. The secondary is adding four quality defensive backs who can compete for time upon arriving in Knoxville. Beasley previously mentioned as a running back could also factor in safety. Outside of the offensive line, this is the group that I am most excited to follow.
Still in Pursuit
There are still several big fish that Tennessee is actively pursuing. With twenty in the fold, we will likely add five to seven more depending on blue shirts and whether or not we maintain the twenty already committed.
The first big name recruit that Tennessee is pursuing is Owen Pappoe. He is a five-star linebacker, who is also teammates with Wanya Morris. Wanya has been rumored to be quite the recruiter as he looks to bring his friend and teammate with him to Knoxville. Owen would be a huge get for the Vols, securing two of the top three prospects from the state of Georgia. He is currently committed to Auburn, but has been reported to be favoring the Vols as of late. The rumors surrounding Malzahn can only help. This will be one to watch in the coming weeks. Pappoe was laser timed running a 4.47 at an event over the summer. His speed on defense could be a tremendous asset for the vols.
Darnell Wright is another highly sought after five-star recruit. He plays offensive tackle and would give Tennessee the best pair of bookends on the offensive line of any team in the country. He has visited Tennessee more than any other school and his high school coach is an East Tennessee native and is connected to the program. Tennessee likely feels good about where they are at in this race, though Wright has remained quiet about who his leader might be. Adding him to the current offensive lineman haul would likely give Tennessee the top OL class in the country.
Eric Gray is the top-rated all-purpose running back in the country and is a Memphis native. He recently became the first ever three-time Mr. Football in the state of Tennessee. He has performed at an exceptionally high level throughout his career. He has drawn comparisons to another in-state back currently on Tennessee’s roster, Ty Chandler. He is a capable as a runner and as a receiver out of the backfield. He is currently committed to Michigan, but there is a lot of smoke coming out of Memphis in regard to a potential flip to UT.
One guy the staff does not seem to want to give up on is Quavaris Crouch. At one time, Crouch was the highest rated recruit in the entire country. He is still considered a five-star by most parties but has dropped due to questions about whether he can remain healthy. If he can stay healthy, he has serious upside and could be a massive addition to the 2019 class. He could play either running back or linebacker. At this point, it is likely that he ends up at Clemson, but Pruitt and staff seem determined to continue to recruit him and show him that they want him to be a part of this class.
Kenyatta Watson is a teammate of commit Wanya Morris and fellow target Owen Pappoe. If we land Pappoe, look for Kenyatta Watson to potentially follow suit. Khafre Brown is likely to be the second wide receiver added to the class. He is a burner and could be just what the receiving corps needs to compliment guys like Callaway and Jennings. EJ Ndoma-Ogar is a guard at IMG and a teammate of Chris Akporoghene. EJ is a highly-rated four star and would add to the strength and depth of this class. He is likely a long-shot, but will be interesting to follow his recruitment til the early signing period, which is when he will likely sign. Another teammate of EJ and Chris is the top-rated player in the country Nolan Smith. He is committed to UGA and is certainly a long-shot, but he was on campus for an official visit a couple weeks ago with Akporoghene. One last prospect to keep an eye on is Alabama commitment, Justin Eboigbe. He was on campus for the Kentucky game and came away impressed. Unlikely he flips, but certainly one to watch
Tennessee finishes with the ninth ranked class in the country. Pruitt secures commitments from Owen Pappoe, Darnell Wright, Eric Crouch, Kenyatta Watson, and Khafre Brown, along with one or two others not listed. This class does not have much if any dead weight and is exactly the kind of class that Tennessee needs to begin to compete with the top half of the SEC. I could see each of these prospects playing a role for Tennessee going forward. There are reasons to be optimistic looking ahead. Programs typically make the biggest jump from year one to year two. Consistency across the program could be huge for development. Hopefully, Helton is the only coach on his way out this period and the players can establish familiarity with the systems in place. Keep the faith. All that is left to do is wait on year two and year three to see if Pruitt can turn the program around.
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