National Signing Day 2018: Hard Dose of Reality for Vols Coach Jeremy Pruitt

Hey, listen: Let’s just call National Signing Day 2018 what it was, independent of passing judgment on any of the kids who signed to be Tennessee Volunteers and without heaping criticism on new UT coach Jeremy Pruitt.

Today was an awful ending to a good recruiting class.

Yes, the Vols had some eventful moments, signing key-need players like plucking 3-star safety Trevon Flowers away from Clemson and others, 3-star defensive tackle John Mincey from South Carolina and 3-star JUCO defensive tackle Emmit Gooden from West Virginia.

They also received commitments/signed Georgia defensive tackle Kurott Garland, Las Vegas receiver Cedric Tillman and Chattanooga safety Joseph Norwood — none of which had any offers from major programs.

The biggest coup of the day was 4-star JJ Peterson — the nation’s top outside linebacker — who followed through with his commitment and chose the Vols over late overtures from Alabama, giving Pruitt an instant-impact weapon for his rebuilding, revamped defense. None of that can — or should — be overlooked.

But today was about the players the Vols didn’t get.

Yes, I know that’s exactly what Pruitt told us not to do, dwell on the players Tennessee missed on but be excited about the ones it signed. Heck, I told you not a week ago that we couldn’t dwell on the misses.

After Wednesday’s fallout, though, that’s like the old saying about asking Mrs. Lincoln about the play.

Pruitt entered his first [mini] recruiting cycle swinging for the fences, aiming at marquee players who were unsigned, hell-bent on bringing at least a couple of them to Knoxville. None of those materialized in commitments.

Zero. Zilch. Nada.

Sure, guys like Flowers, Mincey and Peterson were key cogs to this class regardless of how the end shook out. They were always going to have a spot. But Pruitt also brought in top-notch players at major-need positions on official visits, only to watch all those guys decide to sign elsewhere.

Not only that, but 4-star running back Anthony Grant and 4-star receiver Jordan Young flipped their commitments from Tennessee and signed with Florida State, adding insult to injury.

The rocky finish began on Saturday when offensive tackle Dylan Wonnum elected to join his brother at South Carolina. Then, beginning with the early-morning news of Grant’s flip on Wednesday, the tone was set.

There was a brief respite with good news from Mincey and Flowers mid-morning, but that was the last real ray of the day’s light.

One by one, Vols fans watched television or refreshed internet screens in horror.

Not only did rival Georgia beat out the Vols for stud linebacker Quay Walker’s signature, Walker showed up UT by putting on a Vols hat and then flipping it across the room before picking the Dawgs in a classless gesture. It’s hard to say what was worse — that charade or the fact that Young would have been an unknown receiver at West Virginia State had the Vols not found him, and he repaid Pruitt by signing with FSU.

While Pruitt tried to build a relationship with Taiyon Palmer, his long-standing rapport with the North Carolina State staff led to him signing with the Wolfpack.

Defensive tackle Otito Ogbonnia decided to play for Chip Kelly at UCLA.

Tight end Glen Beal — who was thought to be leaning to UT just mere days ago — chose Texas A&M.

Then, star cornerback Olaijah Griffin picked USC despite saying Tennessee had a big lead a month ago following his official visit.

While Tennessee got some good vibes from receiver Jacob Copeland throughout the morning, he ultimately signed with Florida over the Vols and Alabama.

Finally, Isaac Taylor-Stuart capped off the night by joining Griffin in the Trojans’ defensive backfield.

Walker was a tough blow, simply because he had a long-standing relationship with Pruitt and defensive coordinator Kevin Sherrer, and the Vols thought they were right in the thick of things until the end. It was also a disappointment that UT struck out with players at a major-need position of cornerback. Griffin and Taylor-Stuart stayed out West, long-shot Tyson Campbell joined UGA’s sterling class in Athens, and one-time strong UT lean Eddie Smith picked Alabama. Oh, and Palmer going to NC State hurt, too.

Tennessee wound up signing some potentially good players on Wednesday, but the Vols missed on every single big name.

I’m no expert on reading body language, but Pruitt did not seem to be very happy at his post-NSD press conference. After all, this is a man who has been at Alabama, Georgia and FSU and won some major recruiting battles. He, along with UGA coach Kirby Smart, are arguably the top two recruiting assistants of the past decade.

He isn’t used to days like this.

But, the sad truth of the matter, Vols fans, is this: He ain’t in Tuscaloosa anymore.

We all look at our proud football program as the national powerhouse of old, but it isn’t that, anymore. Not right now. It can be again, but the sobering reality is that we’re coming off a 4-8 season that marked the first time in program history with eight losses and also the first time ever where the Vols failed to win a conference game.

Even in the best of years in the Butch Jones regime, UT went 9-4. Following his debacle of a final year that was rife with negativity, Tennessee went through a very public, very embarrassing coaching search where Greg Schiano was forced into our face, a rebellion ensued, an athletic director was fired, and they could have sold “Honk if you turned down Tennessee” bumper stickers in the coaching community.

Yes, we look like we came out better for it all with Phillip Fulmer as the athletic director, and a real football guy in Pruitt as the head coach. He built a quality staff of assistant coaches with rich pedigrees in recruiting, Southeast ties and player development.

For whatever reason, though, that didn’t translate with signatures Wednesday. There was some impressive immediate success as the Vols loaded up with one of the most noteworthy early signing periods, adding a slew of quality players back in December.

But the backstretch wasn’t kind to Pruitt.

He went back to Alabama to coach the Crimson Tide to the national championship, and though he didn’t lose any real recruiting time, there was a bit of a scramble mode in the way things were handled down the stretch. Perhaps it’s a lesson learned, especially with the way Pruitt managed some early recruiting official visits and some of his own in-home visits. Some think he mismanaged those — such as getting Griffin and Walker in on their OVs early, allowing the Tennessee shine to wear off and others to swoop in.

Also, it can be argued that perhaps Pruitt swung too vigorously at the top-shelf prospects. After all, these are the nation’s elite, and programs have been building relationships with them for years. Pruitt tried to come in and build a rapport in a matter of weeks. But, again, what do you do? Put all your efforts toward lesser players? As you already know, I like the aggressive style, but it just didn’t pay off this time around.

Everything is magnified when you have a day like the Vols did Wednesday, one that will go down as one of the all-time clunkers in the modern era of UT recruiting. The recruiting class wound up fine, but the Vols far from stuck the landing, to say the least.

Make no mistake, again: This is a good class. Pruitt DID do a good job. He inherited a class ranked in the 60s, and the Vols are currently 20th on the 247Sports Composite rankings and 20th in Rivals. That’s only good enough for eighth in the rugged SEC, and it pales in comparison to the monstrous class Georgia put together that rivals any single haul ever assembled. But with all the turmoil, maybe a top-20 class is all we should have expected.

That’s not what the grumbles are for. The majority of rational Vols recruiting followers are glad to have the players who signed, they’re OK with a top-20 class and can find positives in the lessons we learned from Pruitt’s brief-but-aggressive first few months trying to sway players and be excited about how that will translate when this staff has a full recruiting cycle to build relationships.

Instead, we’re all mad because of what might have been. Pruitt hamstrung himself by expanding the board, getting all our hopes up with visits from the nation’s top players and then failing to land any of them on Wednesday.

What we’ve got to remember, though, in evaluating this product is that we need to look at the whole class and not just the ending of it. Is it really “failing” to land a lot of guys you never had a chance at all until the new coach brought them in, or was it wishful thinking to get any of them in the first place?

So, before you go off spouting about “Pruitt can’t close,” remember that there were a lot of factors out of his control this year that contributed to Wednesday’s debacle. Could he have done some things differently? Sure. But there are also a lot of good players in this 2018 class who wouldn’t be in it if not for Pruitt and Co.

So, it’s possible to celebrate the class while calling Wednesday what it was: a Rocky Thud.

With a staff with this recruiting resume, though, better days are ahead, on the field and in the living rooms.

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Sam Hensley
Sam Hensley

“Pruitt entered his first [mini] recruiting cycle swinging for the fences, aiming at marquee players who were unsigned, hell-bent on bringing at least a couple of them to Knoxville. None of those materialized in commitments.

Zero. Zilch. Nada.”

I think JJ Peterson would count as a marquee player who was unsigned that materialized in a commitment, right?


Honest assessment and good (though sobering) write-up, Brad.


What do we expect? 0-8 SEC team with almost no time to build relationships with kids going up against National Champions, ACC Champs and SEC East winner with great recruiters and two years of history. To end up with a top 25 class and several 4 stars is really a testament to UT’s brand…Should have been much worse.