At defensive end, should the Vols go for plug and play instead of upside?

The need for one more defensive end in this class, and how the Vols address that need, is something that’s been discussed in this space quite a bit.  And while I’ve made the case for a guy with unlimited upside but who is a ways from contributing, there’s a case to be made at the opposite end of the spectrum.  If Tennessee were to go the route of someone who could contribute right away, the guy I would focus on is someone who so far has been little discussed: JUCO product Azur Kamara.

Who is Azur Kamara?

Besides having a last name that will always make Tennessee fans smile, Kamara is a very intriguing prospect in his own right.  He’s a big kid (6’6, 240) with speed who has been productive in each of his stops so far.  In high school he set the Arizona high school record with 25 sacks his senior season, but grades forced him to go the JUCO route.  And last season at Arizona Western CC, he had eight sacks.

He’s also an early enrollee, which means he’s not only going to start the 2018 season two years out of high school, he’ll also have a spring practice under his belt to adjust to the college game and learn the playbook.  He’d be a guy you’d expect to immediately compete for a starting job and at worst be part of the regular rotation.

Where does Kamara’s recruitment stand?

Kamara was initially looking to make a summer decision, but as his recruitment has heated up those plans have changed a bit.  He’s already taken official visits to Louisville and Iowa State, and he had plans to visit Utah in September and make a decision after that.  However, he received offers from Florida State, Oklahoma State and Ole Miss to go along with the Tennessee offer that came in the spring, and all of this attention has caused him to slow things down.  All of a sudden this has the makings of a much more high profile recruitment.

As of now FSU, OSU, and the Vols are in line for the remaining three official visits, with the trip to Knoxville, though not yet set, likely to occur in September or October.

The Vols do have a link to Arizona Western, as current defensive GA Jon Shalala was the OL coach for 11 months before coming to Knoxville.  And of course current Vols starting defensive end Jonathan Kongbo came from Arizona Western as well, so there are a handful of ties.  Kongbo’s status as a starter probably is a great selling point here, and if he were to jump out of the gates strongly that couldn’t hurt, either.  However, it should be noted that Louisville just received commitments from a couple of his AWCC teammates, so they will likely be helping the Cardinals in this recruitment.

Which Direction Do the Vols Go?

Ultimately the Vols will have to decide which direction they want to take with the last defensive end spot.  And that decision is likely to come down to a lot of factors – as The Dude would say, lotta ins, lotta outs here:

  1. How do the current DEs on the roster perform, especially early in the season? For example, does Jonathan Kongbo start the season playing like the former 5-star and #1 JUCO prospect he is, setting himself up for a possible early jump to the NFL?  Because in that case the staff has a different 2018 roster to think about.  Conversely, do freshmen like Deandre Johnson or Matthew Butler look like future SEC stars, in which case the need for another instant impact DE is a lot less pressing?  In a worst case scenario, do none of the DEs play well, such that the staff feels like they need more immediate help in 2018?
  2. Another factor is the status of Dorian Gerald, a current jewel of the class and an expected immediate contributor in 2018 as a JUCO early enrollee. While Gerald maintains he is 100% committed to the Vols, not only are other schools still after him, he’s also actually in the process of setting up official visits to places like Louisville (less of a threat) and South Carolina (the home-state school).  The Vols definitely have to have a contingency plan were he to bolt.
  3. Finally, depending on how the season goes, we may see the defensive end board expand to include no-brainer studs that aren’t currently strongly considering the Vols. Someone like Adam Anderson, who has been to campus and is being recruited hard by good friend and UT commit Jamarcus Chatman, or a guy like UGA commitment Azeez Ojulari could reignite their interest in the Vols, especially if UGA struggles on the field again in Year 2 for Kirby Smart.

As we’ve discussed, I like prospects like Caleb Kelly, Caleb Johnson, and Andrew Johnson just fine.  They seem like likely SEC contributors but not likely NFL prospects – kind of like Corey Vereen – and there is nothing wrong with that.  But in my opinion, the DE roster has enough low-ceiling/high floor players.  To me, if they indeed are going to add another DE in this class, the staff should be targeting upside now that they’ll have fixed the numbers (and talent issue) at the position.

There is obviously the issue of how interested Kamara and any of the other remaining DEs on the board actually are in Tennessee.  With Kamara, if he’s got a committable offer from a place like FSU it’s not like UT can simply call him up and land him.  They would need to recruit him very hard.

Interestingly, Oladele (who is also an early enrollee) is scheduled to make his official visit for the UGA game in late September, which could coincide with Kamara’s official visit.  That should mean that the staff has a pretty good idea of what they think the 2018 DE roster is going to look like, both in terms of numbers and in terms of talent.  It also means that they might have to make a decision on how they want to handle the spot if either/both of Oladele and Kamara want to commit.

The best case scenario is that the Vols are 4-0 when the Dawgs come to Knoxville, the DEs have played well and shown promise for the future, and that the on-field success has created increased interest in some of the elite DEs mentioned above.  While it can be difficult, it’s always good to have options, and the more you win the more options you have.  How the staff handles those possible options at the DE position in particular will be fascinating to watch.




  1. I am all for JUCO players when you have to rebuild a program or you are a second tier program. Give me a kid who will be with the program for the next 4-5 years over one who is here for 2. Hard to build depth when you have players who are here for only 2 years and the first year for the most part they are a part time player

  2. Fair point. Counter to that is that Alabama almost always takes 1 JUCO DL per cycle. They get plug and play guys and just recycle them alongside their stud high school DL. Additionally, depending on what Kongbo does AND how this year’s freshmen look like we may have a need for another DE who can come in and play right away. Especially if the rest of the team is set up for another run.

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