As we wind down below a week until National Signing Day, this is the most clueless I’ve ever been on how Tennessee is going to finish its 2018 recruiting class.
There are so many names on the board, and while the recent rumor mill hasn’t been very kind to the Vols and head coach Jeremy Pruitt regarding top targets such as Olaijah Griffin, Eddie Smith, Isaac Taylor-Stuart, Coynis Miller, Jacob Copeland and others, UT still remains players for a couple of guys on that list. Several other possibilities remain as well, as it looks like Tennessee winds up with a class of 22-23, depending on how things shake out.
While we may not know how things are going to finish, we’ve found out a handful of things about Pruitt and his coaching staff in the brief time they’ve been able to hit the road and convince kids to visit Knoxville.
Let’s take a look at what we know.
These guys swing for the fences
When Pruitt stood in front of Tennessee media, boosters, fans and everyone else in his introductory press conference, he advised Vols fans to worry about the prospects they get and not the ones they don’t.
That wasn’t setting his staff up for failure or preparing the fan base to absorb the loss of former 5-star offensive line commit Cade Mays. Instead, this was more about the MAJOR names that he had to feel confident he could get to listen and — based on the small amount of time they’ve had to build relationships — the relatively low hit rate on big fish.
Pruitt has been at Alabama, Georgia and Florida State. That’s three of the most elite recruiting schools in the country, and while Tennessee may be a tier below that, the Vols are coming off their worst season in school history, a debacle that saw them go 0-8 in the conference. On top of that, there was a very hairy coaching search that carried with it some bad publicity.
All of that is in the rear-view mirror, however. And while a lot of the top kids in the country may not want to play for Tennessee in this cycle, Pruitt is going to give them an opportunity to. That bodes well for the future.
Case in point: Elite 5-star cornerback Tyson Campbell hadn’t sniffed UT in his heated recruitment. But once Pruitt and Co. visited him in his Fort Lauderdale, Florida home a week ago, it resulted in an official visit last weekend. The same goes for 4-star defensive tackle and Campbell’s teammate Nesta Silvera. Will either of those guys commit to the Vols? That’s doubtful considering their short-term relationship with the staff, but UT gave itself a puncher’s chance by getting them on campus.
Pruitt has been able to land elite linebacker JJ Peterson because of his prior relationship, and the Vols are right in the thick of it for 4-star linebacker Quay Walker, Griffin, Taylor-Stuart, Copeland and plenty more top-level prospects who weren’t even on the radar under the Butch Jones regime.
Let’s say UT winds up with two more 4-star prospects. If you add those to guys like Peterson, tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson, offensive guard Jerome Carvin and running back Jeremy Banks, this has been a very successful late-cycle haul for Pruitt. His swing-for-the-fences mentality will produce plenty of future “hits,” but we can’t get caught up in the ones who don’t come. To be on their radar is an accomplishment (though that won’t win you any games.)
They’re excellent talent evaluators
The Jordan Young story may wind up being one that is told for years around Tennessee. How in the world did a 6’2″, 185-pound athletic wide receiver who had 17 touchdowns as a senior and won a state championship in track not have any major scholarships? Especially when this kid lives in an Atlanta suburb?
Regardless, Pruitt and Co. found him, brought him in, offered him, and now he’ll commit to Tennessee barring any last-second change of heart. Florida State is still trying to get him to visit to flip him, but Young seems firm with the Vols. That isn’t the only diamond-in-the-dirt the Vols have pursued, either.
In the end, they may pay a penalty for finding some of these guys as they choose to go elsewhere.
It’s hard to claim Tennessee “found” Eddie Smith, but he didn’t have a ton of SEC offers and committed early to TCU before decommitting. He had a relationship with Pruitt, and the Vols were long thought to be the favorite, but now he looks bound for Alabama after the Crimson Tide offered.
Taiyon Palmer is a defensive back from Lawrenceville, Georgia, who was committed to Duke for a while, but the Vols offered, brought him in for a visit and now may land him. He’s received offers from Alabama, Nebraska, Clemson and others recently, and a lot of those came after UT expressed interest.
Safety Trevon Flowers was committed to Kentucky to play baseball, and he’s been trying to wriggle free of that situation to visit Tennessee to play football the past two weekends. Clemson offered him this week, and now the Tigers may be a threat.
The list goes on and on. This staff has evaluated some very good players who are winding up with healthy offer sheets. While that doesn’t matter if the Vols finish as the bridesmaid in the quest to get their signatures, it has resulted in Young committing. Also, it makes you feel better about unheralded defensive tackle signee Kingston Harris and cornerback Brandon Davis, who committed this week after favoring South Alabama.
They’ll make you tell them no
The Vols may be coming off a winless SEC slate, but they’re going through the Victoria’s Secret magazine and asking out every gal in the book. If they tell you no, hey, at least you tried, right?
Miller reaffirmed his pledge to Auburn while standing in the airport after just leaving his official visit in Knoxville. Oh well. Next.
Campbell, Taylor-Stuart and Griffin all have (or will) visit. They’ve been hotly pursued as if they’ve been considering Tennessee for months. Walker is a long-time Alabama commit who was once considered a lock to flip to Georgia, but UT is right in the thick of his signature.
Safety Jordan Moore is a long shot who looks destined for Texas or Texas A&M, but Tennessee visited him several times and made him tell them no. He did.
But Wood-Anderson didn’t. Peterson didn’t. JT Shrout — who was committed to Cal for months — didn’t, and UT now has its quarterback. The list goes on and on.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
They aren’t afraid to go anywhere and everywhere
One thing that was frustrating about Jones’ recruiting efforts — though he was pretty successful on the trail during his tenure at Tennessee — was his failure to sell UT as a national brand.
When Phillip Fulmer was having all his success, UT would go into California, Texas, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey — wherever — and pull a kid or two every year. The Vols went where the stars were.
In the past couple of seasons, Jones and Co. had rather fill up on marginal 3-star prospects from Florida and Georgia than rub elbows with other players elsewhere. There’s nothing wrong with that if you develop them, but he didn’t.
The Vols have been adamant about having a major presence in California, and that doesn’t look like it’s going to be a one-year thing. They’re one of the top two for Griffin, getting a visit from Taylor-Stuart and pulled Shrout from that state. They’ve already offered a ton of 2019 kids from the Golden State, too. Wood-Anderson came from Arizona. The Vols look like they’re right at the top of the list for Texas defensive tackle Otito Ogbonnia. They’ve got a commitment from JUCO offensive tackle Jahmir Johnson from Philly.
They’ve kicked the tires on Florida prospects like Copeland and Campbell, and they’re trying to have a presence in Alabama with guys like Malik Langham as well as in Georgia, where they plucked Peterson and are chasing Walker and a bunch of DBs. All the while, UT grabbed a couple of major victories in an area they don’t traditionally own, getting Carvin and Banks out of Memphis.
Getting wide receivers coach David Johnson from Mike Norvell’s Tigers will probably help UT in the Bluff City in the future as well.
So, what does all this mean about the ’18 finish?
It’s hard to say. Maybe Tennessee winds up with a monstrous finish, getting two or three of the big-name prospects they’re in the thick of things with and adding a couple more 3-star players who would be big wins such as Ogbonnia or maybe John Mincey or Palmer.
That type of finish would be good enough to put Tennessee in the 15-18 range in final rankings, which would be nothing short of remarkable considering the Vols were in the 60s when Jones was fired.
Pruitt and Co. have focused the majority of their attention on program-changing players. Yes, UT needs bodies, and the Vols may wind up taking a few reaches to fill spots, but don’t look for them to just flesh out the class with warm bodies. They’ll save those spots for graduate transfers or a bigger class next season. In the future, Pruitt and his staff will be able to build relationships with kids who will wind up being fallback plans that will help hedge the bets if the big boys don’t head to Rocky Top.
We don’t have that benefit this season. So, just sit back and enjoy the finish. Don’t get too caught up over the huge names we’re in it for who wind up heading elsewhere. Instead, marvel at what Pruitt has been able to do in such a short time especially in the wake of the rocky postseason, and hope that translates positively for the future.
If this staff wins games, they’ll be able to recruit with anybody in the nation because this staff is elite in its ability to convince and build relationships with players. Hopefully for UT, it’ll pay off in some big commits this Wednesday.