It goes without saying that this weekend’s showdown with Georgia will go a long way in determining not just how the 2017 season goes but also how the trajectory of the Butch Jones Era at Tennessee will unfold. It’s a huge game, plain and simple. And while the 60 minutes between the white lines are incredibly important, the UGA game is also a showcase game for UT from a recruiting perspective: Checker Neyland, 102,455, honoring past greats including The GOAT (Peyton, come on). And there will be a ton of high level recruits in attendance. Let’s take a look at who will be there and where the Vols stand with each as we are now about 10 weeks from the early signing period and Butch and Co. sit with 23 public commitments and a Top 10 class.
Tennessee will have two commitments in town for official visits in QB Adrian Martinez and WR Shockey Jacques-Louis. Martinez’s commitment is very solid and this will be a great chance for him to take in his first game and do some recruiting. Jacques-Louis’s official visit comes at an interesting time, however. A former Kentucky commitment, he took an official visit to Lexington last weekend to see the Wildcats become the latest team to give a W away to Florida. So he’s clearly not 100% firm in his UT commitment. And using an official visit this early, especially with a kid who is still looking around, is an interesting strategy, even for a Dececmber enrollee like Shockey. Maybe the staff feels like they can lock him down this weekend. Maybe they want to bring him in with his good friend and fellow playmaking South Florida WR Jeshaun Jones (more on him below) and try to get the two of them to (re)commit at the same time. Either way, it seems likely that this is the last time Jacques-Louis will be on campus before he signs, so if the Vols want to land his signature they’ll have to hit a home run this weekend.
Georgia natives and stud DBs Trey Dean (a newly minted Under Armour All-American) and Jaycee Horn (he of the visits to Clemson, South Carolina, and Athens in successive weeks) are also scheduled to be there unofficially. Both players are having outstanding seasons, and while it’s painfully obvious (but not unexpected) that Horn is keeping his options open, one would expect that Dean will see his recruitment heat up as hot as he wants it as the season progresses. Needless to say getting both of these two back to campus (especially Dean on back to back weekends) and for what should be an atmosphere as good or better than they will see all season, is big.
While they haven’t been confirmed, I also expect most, if not all, of the nine in-state commitments and the four other Georgia-based commits to be in attendance. Most were in Neyland for at least one of the prior two home games, and many of them were in Atlanta for the thrilling win over Georgia Tech. I also expect 2019 in-state commitments TJ Sheffield (who was also in last weekend) and Cam Wynn to be there.
It’s always good to have commitments around on a big recruiting weekend, as it furthers the sense of family that Butch and his staff sell, helps families of recruits feel more comfortable (remember Jatavious Harris’s and Jaycee Horn’s mother hitting it off at Orange Carpet Day?), and of course it’s always helpful to the staff to have guys already in the boat leaning on uncommitted guys.
Uncommitted 2018 Targets – Official Visitors
OL Jerome Carvin: Arguably Tennessee’s biggest remaining target, literally and figuratively, Carvin taking his official visit this early in the cycle is interesting in a similar way to that of Jacques-Louis. While Carvin seemed close to committing to the Vols in August, he decided to slow things down just a little and take some visits. And while at that time Alabama was thought to be UT’s biggest competition, Mississippi State has positioned itself in that spot. In fact, he was in attendance for State’s big win over LSU in Starkville a few weeks ago as an unofficial visitor and as of now intends to be back there at some point for an official visit. So is this another risky move bringing in Carvin in September? Or do the coaches know something and feel like they could get him to both publicly commit and also shut it down either while he’s in town or shortly thereafter? Carvin would be a capper to an incredibly strong OL class and would also represent a nice coup for Jones to land a highly coveted player from the Memphis area.
WR Jeshaun Jones: The aforementioned South Florida WR is a really nice player who has been to campus before and really likes the Vols. He’s also a guy who simply blew up an FSU camp in the late summer and earned a Seminole offer. He’s smooth, has good size and deceptive speed/athleticism, and is a precise route runner. As mentioned, he’s really close with Jacques-Louis and we all know this staff loves them some South Florida WRs. Would he be a take if he wanted to jump in this weekend? I think so, but with numbers so tight and a lot of other elite players on the board, I am not 100% positive. He will be one to watch for sure.
DE Caleb Johnson: Another good player, at a position of need, who really likes the Vols. He was one of those in Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the game against Tech, and he’s been to campus before as well. Johnson is having a really strong senior season and is also getting some more interest from UGA of late. Johnson may represent Tennessee’s best chance to land another high-quality DE prospect. However, with the Vols hanging around and (IMO) a real dark horse in the Adam Anderson race, I’m not sure they would take him right now. That said, if the staff feels like they need to hedge their bets against losing at least one of the current DL class (remember, JUCO stud Dorian Gerald is scheduled to take at least one official visit, to hometown South Carolina, and D’Andre Litaker is looking hard at Louisville), Johnson would be a nice way to do so.
Uncommitted 2018 Targets – Unofficial Visitors
DE Adam Anderson – Anderson, teammate and close friend of UT commitment and fellow stud DE Jamarcus Chatman, is thought to be a long shot for the Vols. Alabama, UGA, and to a certain extent Clemson are the presumed most-likely destinations. That said, I think people are discounting the Vols at their own peril. Anderson was on campus at least once this summer, was in Atlanta for the Tech game, and will now be in town again this weekend. As mentioned, he is very close with Chatman, and the families are close as well. I’d put the odds at him signing with the Vols at ~25% right now, but he’s shown enough interest to allow us to think he’ll be back for at least an official visit, and as long as the Vols keep swinging I think they’ll be there until the end. Anderson is a game-changing type rush defensive end and would likely see snaps immediately here (and most places, really). He’s worth pulling out all the stops.
LB/DE Richard Jibunor/LB Cam Jones: I’ve grouped these two together for a few reasons. For one, both are tremendous athletes who could project at a couple of positions. Secondly, while Cam Jones has long been thought a future LB (at least at Tennessee), Jibunor has been recruited by various schools at either LB or DE. However, at 6’3″ and 206 pounds, I have started to think of him more and more as a LB prospect, and the fact that UT LB coach Tommy Thigpen is his primary recruiter is probably not 100% coincidence. I’ve argued that with the addition of Matthew Flint (who is having a killer season), the Vols don’t need another LB. However, they seem open to doing so, as most prominently evidenced by their recent pickup in attention with Jones. Jones is potentially a very good player in his own right, and his close friendship with Carvin is worth considering. That said, if the Vols decided they want another LB in the class and could land Jibunor and then another big time DE (as opposed to Jones as the LB and Jibunor or Caleb Johnson as the DE) that would be preferable in my opinion. Jibunor certainly has a much better offer list, as UT is fighting Auburn and to a lesser extent UF for him while Jones hasn’t received that level of attention. This weekend will likely go a long way in determining whether either, both, or neither end up in this class.
ATH Dashon Bussell: Dynamic local athlete who moved back to Knoxville this summer from the Midwest who is very high on the Vols as well as Iowa. He’s been to each home game and was on campus for some fall practices as well. Bussell has some mid-level SEC offers like UK, and if he continues his tremendous season so far for Knox Catholic he’ll probably see his offer list grow. In a different year, he’d probably have a very committable offer, but as it is, given the WR/DB classes the Vols have put together so far, I think there’s a greater than 50% chance he doesn’t end up a Vol. But, should attrition occur at either position things could change quickly.
This list is likely to expand in the next two days, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see some new names try to get to campus (Alabama DB Myles Mason has been mentioned, and he’s a good one) if only to see what should be a good game in a great atmosphere.
This game will also be a showcase for the program in front of numerous 2019 and 2020 prospects. One of the upsides of having an almost full 2018 class is that the staff has been able to do a ton of work with future classes, and it’s paid off not just with the three very good 2019 commitments but also with having a lot of high profile future prospects in attendance in Atlanta and also at the two previous home games.
For the UGA game, future prospects expected in include coveted 2019 players like CB Woodi Washington, OL Jackson Lampley, DB Jalen Perry, OL Darnell Wright, and OL Tanner Bowles. 2020 studs DL Tyler Barron and OL Tate Ratledge (from GA but from a family of Vol fans…kind of like Trevor Lawrence, ugh) are also scheduled to be there. I expect this list to expand dramatically as the game gets closer.
This is simply a huge weekend for Butch Jones and the Volunteer program. Win here and the entire direction of the program changes, as you’re suddenly back in the SEC East race in a big way, have now established some dominance over an otherwise ascendant UGA program with a third win in a row, and set yourself up for a season that could still reach the upper limit of what even unreasonable fans could have hoped for. It’s also a showcase weekend for the program: a chance to show elite level prospects from multiple classes what Neyland looks and sounds like when it’s rockin’, solidify and perhaps enhance an already tremendous 2018 class, and take another step with future classes. Here’s hoping the Vols play their best game of the season and take home a W.