By week’s end, both OLB BJ Ojulari and TE Eric Shaw will have announced their commitments to their respective universities of choice. Both have been to Tennessee’s campus multiple times, both are rated s 4-stars by 247 Sports (Ojulari at #184 overall – and also a 4-star on Rivals, Shaw at #301 overall), and both have nice offer lists. They’re both very good prospects who will play their college football in the SEC, the best conference in college football bar none.
Here’s where they differ: Tennessee has gone all-in on Ojulari, as have LSU, Auburn, Florida and others, whereas in the end Shaw wasn’t a take for at least the Vols if not also instate Auburn. So today Shaw is going to pick South Carolina, a program that Tennessee hasn’t beaten since 2015 and one that is a roadblock for Tennessee in between where it is and where it wants to be: back at the top of the SEC East and the entire conference. In contrast, the Vols are in a dogfight right down to the end for Ojulari, who if he doesn’t pick Tennessee will choose either LSU or Auburn, two programs who’ve been winning at a high level for a decade-plus. As the rankings difference and more importantly level of schools willing to take them suggest, Ojulari is considered to be an “elite adjacent” prospect – he’s not a take for instate UGA right now – while Shaw is considered to be a solid player whose ceiling and floor are both lower. Ojulari is a physical freak who’s not only added weight to his 6-3, 225 pound frame but also added new dimensions to his pass-rushing skill-set this spring and summer to where he’s no longer strictly a speed rusher. He won DL MVP at the Rivals 3 Stripe Camp in Atlanta, showed out at The Opening in Atlanta, and then most impressively was named to the “Dream Team” at the Opening Finals against many of the best players in the country. The Vols are looking for at least one bigtime pass-rushing OLB and would love to pair Ojulari with Reggie Grimes from the Midstate and/or West Coast product Sav’ell Smalls to give them one of the best position groups in the country. Ojulari would also combine with QB Harrison Bailey give the Vols two Marietta HS studs in the class of 2020 to go with WR Ramel Keyton from last year’s class, giving Tennessee yet another tie to their teammate and 5-star stud WR/TE Arik Gilbert. That all remains to be seen of course pending Ojulari’s choice on Friday.
One could make the case that rather than try and go head to head with the Georgias and Alabamas and LSUs and Auburns for top-end recruits – where the Vols are going to lose more than they win at least for now – they should take the slow and steady approach to program building. That is, recruit against the likes of South Carolina, Missouri, Mississippi State, etc. – programs in the middle of the SEC to whom Tennessee is looking up at the moment. As we’ve discussed, that’s very much not the approach that Jeremy Pruitt is taking in the least. In fact, as illustrated very starkly by these two recruitments, Pruitt is looking to just skip over the programs that he (and Vol fans) feel have no business being slotted above Tennessee and zoom straight back to competing against the aforementioned programs at the top of the SEC. Whether that is ultimately successful or not is to be determined, but they’ve already got more than a handful of no-doubt bluechippers in this class and realistically are squarely in the mix for, frankly, a whole lot more after landing a Top 10 class of 2019. If Pruitt is in fact successful with his strategy he’ll at the very least raise the floor for the program, as Tennessee will quickly have way more talent than the middle of the pack programs, enabling the Vols to go back to beating those teams regularly strictly on talent alone. At the same time, Pruitt will have Tennessee at least approximating the talent of the elite SEC programs, narrowing the gap such that outcoaching and getting a break here and there will enable Tennessee to actually beat them instead of just coming close as it has for the better part of the last ten years.