This past week might be more indicative of what we should expect from the Jeremy Pruitt regime, as the relationships he’s taken time to build manifested itself in a flurry of commitments.
One common theme throughout most of these new pledges is that they’re bigger than the players currently on campus. That’s no surprise. Pruitt mentioned several times over the course of his first few months that he wanted to see the Vols get bigger — both in the weight room and on the recruiting trail with the type of athlete they were recruiting.
Not only have we noticed in drills that a lot of the players are bigger (guys like quarterback Jarrett Guarantano and linebacker Quart’e Sapp) but also, the guys Pruitt is bringing in are elevating the average size of the roster.
The week started with an expected pledge from Cartersville, Georgia, tight end Jackson Lowe, who Tennessee loved and had high atop their list at the tight end position — a major need for the team in this recruiting cycle. At 6’5″, 242 pounds, Lowe is athletic for his size, can catch passes and looks to be a strong inline blocker. He’s used to catching passes and pass-blocking, as his quarterback a season ago was top-ranked signal-caller Trevor Lawrence, a player who grew up high on the Vols but ultimately chose Clemson because of failures by the previous regime.
Lowe was coveted by many of the top teams in the country, including Clemson, but fell in love with the Vols, Pruitt, tight ends coach Brian Niedermeyer and commitment Jackson Lampley.
Tennessee continued the trend with a defensive tackle pledge from LeDarrius Cox, a 6’4″, 305-pound defensive tackle from McGill Toolen High School in Mobile, Alabama. He had offers from Georgia, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and others, and he will be a high-rising recruit. Though he’s just a 3-star prospect, he’ll see his interest surge. It’ll be interesting to see what happens if Alabama or Auburn pulls the trigger because everybody knows how hard it is to pull players out of the Yellowhammer State, especially with the way both those instate teams are currently surging.
Earlier in the week, Tennessee pulled 2020 athlete Kristian Story from Alabama, a 6’2″, 207-pound athlete who is one of the nation’s top 200 players in that class. He’s expected to be one of the top overall players from the state in that group, which could be Pruitt’s best class with all the time to build relationships.
Tennessee followed up Cox’s recruitment with a commitment from an old name. JUCO defensive end Darel Middlelton, who chose UT while he was an underclassman at Powell High School. He transferred to Oak Ridge, had some off-the-field issues and wound up at East Mississippi Community College. He was once a 240-pound tight end prospect, but now he’s a 6’7″, 290-pound defensive end. It’s unclear whether he’d be part of the 2018 or ’19 class for the Vols, who are trying to get him in, but he’s an elite athlete if he can make the grades.
Sure, he’ll be rough around the edges, but a player of that size is somebody Tennessee can’t afford to turn away. Pruitt liked him when he was at Alabama, and teams like LSU and Georgia showed a lot of interest in him, too. If Tennessee can start getting big bruisers like him and 300-pound JUCO commitment Emmit Gooden in school, that’s a positive development for a program that looks like it finally wants to start competing to play SEC football.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Tennessee is going after all these big-name prospects who are bigger in stature, too. Pruitt immediately noticed the size discrepancy when he got to Rocky Top. Simply put: There were times a year ago when UT didn’t look like an SEC team, and that goes for the team throughout the roster.
That’s why the Vols vowed to get bigger, and they did at places like running back where they recruited 6’2″, 220-pound Jeremy Banks and received a graduate transfer from Michigan State power runner Madre London, who is 6’1″, 220. Heck, even Keller Chryst, the graduate transfer quarterback, is 240 pounds.
It just so happens the nation’s top-ranked player is a running back/outside linebacker from North Carolina named Quavaris Crouch, who is a monstrous 6’2″, 224 pounds and who has already visited Tennessee for a multi-day visit. Of course, the Vols will have plenty of competition for him, but they’re going to be in the race for the long haul.
For those looking for a quick fix in Knoxville, you’re probably going to be disappointed. The roster deficiencies Butch Jones left are prevalent. The argument can be made that the roster — at least in places — is worse than the one he took over when Derek Dooley was fired, which is crazy considering the good recruiting Jones did at times. That speaks to his failures in player development, and it’s why UT fans hold out hope that the new staff can get the most out of players who were expected to play better than their careers have proved thus far.
But you simply can’t play SEC football with a finesse scheme on either side of the ball. That was evidenced by all the injuries the Vols suffered the past few years and also by the fact that Tennessee had few players on its team that made any game-breaking plays on either side of the ball. They were kind of just … there.
When you see Alabama and Georgia step onto the field, you see physical freaks flying around all over the field, making tackles or breaking tackles, making plays and forcing turnovers or scoring touchdowns. Tennessee isn’t there, and the ’18 version of the Vols probably won’t be, either.
But Pruitt has seen it up close and personal while with the Tide and Dawgs. Heck, he recruited a lot of those players making those plays. So, he knows what it takes.
The Tennessee transformation has begun.