September 1: Dead period ends, 2019 recruiting begins in earnest

Today the 2017 college football season has already have kicked off, and Tennessee’s first game will be just three days away.  And while Butch Jones and his staff will surely be making final preparations to take on Georgia Tech in Atlanta, they will also be taking the next step toward building the future of the program.  September 1st is the first day that coaches can contact Class of 2019* prospects via phone and Twitter.  Staffs’ initial priorities are revealed by who is contacted when, and on the flip side prospects start the next phase of their recruitments.

*Let’s get it out of the way: Discussing the Class of 2019 on September 1, 2017 is crazy.  These kids are 15, maybe 16 years old. But that’s just how college football recruiting is now – compressed cycles and tons of exposure caused a multitude of factors, not the least of which are a billion dollar scouting/recruiting service industry and intense fan interest (you’re reading this, aren’t you?).  With that said…

With three commitments already, each of whom are 247Sports 4-stars, the 2019 class is already ranked #12 nationally.  For a variety of reasons, Tennessee sits in a very nice position with regard to this class, and looking forward has a chance to stack another great class on what’s going to be a blockbuster 2018 haul.

2018 Hay is Mostly in the Barn

As the 2017 season begins, the Vols are sitting with a Top 5 2018 class in the country and with 23 commitments.  Now, Butch Jones always seems to find room if he wants to sign an extra player or two, but assuming 25 is the limit for this class and even allowing for some attrition from the current commitment list, there simply isn’t a ton of recruiting left to do.  We all know the top targets for the last 2-3 spots: OL Jerome Carvin, another defensive end, and maybe WR Jeshaun Jones.   Of course, Tennessee’s staff will have to fight to hold onto many of their commitments, and that will take time and energy, but it’s simply not the same as trying to land 10+ more players over the course of the next five months.

What this means is that the UT staff will be able to focus on scouting, communicating with, and building relationships with 2019 prospects while many of its rivals are still working on 2018 players.  They’ll be able to spend more time figuring out who the decision makers are in each prospects recruitment.  More time standing on the sidelines on Friday nights.  And more time scouting and finding out exactly who they want to target.  They also get to use the upcoming game against Georgia Tech to host a bunch of 2019 prospects – top instate targets Joe Anderson, Trey Knox, Wesley Walker, as well as former commits Kendrell Scurry and Adonis Otey are among those who plan to attend.

The added benefit is that Tennessee’s staff, with multiple members who are new since NSD 2017, will have that much more time to do any catch up with the class of 2019.  And given this new staff is already showing much improved results on the trail over the previous one, this bodes very well.

In-state Class is Loaded Again

According to 247Sports, the state of Tennessee has 20 4-stars in the 2019 class, and Vols commits TJ Sheffield and Cameron Wynn are two of them.  Importantly, while there was some talk earlier in the year that the 2019 class on both sides of the line of scrimmage wouldn’t be anywhere near the 2018 class, six of those 20 4-stars are defensive linemen – while only one is an offensive lineman, it’s Vols legacy Jackson Lampley who is pretty close to a lock in my opinion.  Also, this list of 4-stars doesn’t include other prospects whom several scouts are incredibly high on, including linemen Joseph Honeysucker and Tymon Mitchell.

And despite periodic incursions from the likes of Ohio State and FSU (among other blue bloods who recruit nationally), Butch Jones and Co. have proven their ability to bring the lion’s share of the elite in-state talent to Knoxville.  Look no further than the 2018 class, which includes nine in-state commitments with at least one more likely to come, and with only two prospects the Vols would have liked having committed elsewhere (RB Master Teague and OL Max Wray).

For Tennessee, in-state recruiting success is a virtuous cycle: As the Vols sign more and more talent inside the state’s borders, the ties between Knoxville and the rest of the state deepen.  Future prospects see their older friends go to UT and succeed.  High school coaches do the same with their players.  And assistants like OL coach Walt Wells, who seemingly knows every person connected to high school football in the state, strengthen those relationships even more.  And as the state continues to churn out more and more elite talent every year, Tennessee can rely more and more on that talent to form the bulk of big time recruiting classes.

Combining the two points above about being ahead of the game and the state being loaded in 2019, see below the Top 20 players in the state of TN for 2019 and how many times they’ve been on campus*.  It’s extraordinary how good of a job at getting the best players in the state on campus the staff has done, and we’re still almost 18 months away from NSD 2019.

*Just the ones I know of

247 TN Rank Name POS # UT Visits
1 Anderson DL 6*
2 Hampton DB 0
3 Knox WR 2*
4 Wilhoitte WR 5
5 Scurry WR 4*
6 Gregory DL 0
7 Izuchuku DL 4
8 Nash WR 1
9 Otey DB 7*
10 Lampley OL 1
11 Walker CB 4*
12 SHEFFIELD WR 2
13 Norton DL 1
14 Gray RB 1
15 Hopper DL 1
16 Washington DB 1
17 WYNN WR 4
18 Watkins DB 5
19 Hannah LB 1
20 Williams DL 2
* Scheduled to attend GT game in ATL

Other 247 Sports 4-stars to watch out for right off the bat include DL Zacch Pickens from SC (#59 overall); OL Darnell Wright from WV (#86 overall); DB Joseph Charleston from GA (#150 overall); RB Derrian Brown from GA (#157 overall); and WR Ramel Keyton from GA (#178 overall).  All of these guys are elite prospects and have been to campus at least once already, and in fact Keyton, who has seen his recruitment explode this summer, named the Vols his leader as recently as late June.  The Vols have a family tie with Charleston in that his brother is a current player on the Tennessee Baseball team, and Derrian Brown comes from the Buford program that has produced current Vols Austin Smith (a starter on Monday night at SAM LB) and Quay Picou, as well as 2018 RB commit and Brown’s teammate, Anthony Grant.

Florida Investments Will Continue to Pay Dividends

We hit on this back in June, but Butch Jones has made a big investment in recruiting in Florida, in terms of his staff, allocation of resources, and absolute numbers of Floridians on the roster.  After signing five players from Florida in the class of 2016, Butch Jones and Co. followed that up by signing seven Floridians in 2017.  That’s 30% of the last two signing classes from the Sunshine State.  So far for the class of 2018, the Vols have four Florida natives on the commitment list: QB Michal Penix, DBs Tanner Ingle and Brandon Cross, and WR Shocky Jacques-Louis.  They are still targeting DE Kayode Oladele and WR Jeshaun Jones as well.

Not surprisingly, the state of Florida is once again loaded in 2019, with 40 247Sports 4-stars.  And just like in Tennessee, those relationships continue to get stronger, allowing the Vols to dip into the Sunshine State and take more and better players every year.  Obviously, recruiting in Florida is a different animal than in your own state, and Florida is uniquely difficult because it has one powerhouse program in Florida State and two other programs in major conferences in the University of Florida and the University of Miami.  But Butch Jones has been succeeding in the state, particularly recently, and with another year (and the extra time discussed above) for OC Larry Scott and WR coach Kevin Beard to recruit down there on behalf of the Vols, that success should only continue.  Especially when you don’t have to have that many because your own state is providing you with a large chunk of your class.  It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the Florida Gators program is currently imploding, with more than 10% of the team suspended for the opener (as of this writing…could be more by the minute) for defrauding the university and coach Jim McElwain handing out 4th and 5th chances like they grow on a tree just outside the football complex.

*Caveats: nine are from IMG, so most are not true Floridians; UF has eight commits, UM has four and FSU has three.

Momentum and Winning on the Field

These are two different things.  While the Vols clearly have momentum on the recruiting trail, the 2017 season will go a long way toward determining the tenure of Butch Jones and his staff at Tennessee.  Exceed relatively modest expectations (i.e., beat 1-2 of UF/UGA/Bama/LSU and win the SEC East) and Butch is likely the coach here as long as he wants to be.  With the way he’s already recruiting, he could be set up to take Tennessee to that mythical “next level.”  Win 7-8 regular season games and he’s likely safe, ensuring that this outstanding 2018 class stays largely intact and the staff remains.  Anything less than that though, and all bets are off – best case is a coach on a very hot seat heading into the 2018 season, which will be used against him to no end; worst case AD John Currie cuts bait and we start over.  I’m of the opinion that the latter scenario is by far the least likely, but the Vols absolutely have to prove it on the field starting Monday.

It goes without saying that recruiting is the lifeblood of a football program, and fortunately there aren’t many coaches in the country as passionate about it and as good at it as Butch Jones.  Combine that with a killer staff, a competitive advantage from getting their work done on the previous class, a state churning out unprecedented numbers of blue chip talent, and investments in another talent-rich state that are paying off.  There’s obviously a ton of time between now and NSD 2019, but the Vols are off to a great start.  And the staff has an opportunity to leverage several advantages – some they’ve created and some that are systemic – to bring in another big time class in 2019.

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