We’ll have more on the various position groups in Tennessee’s 2020 class in the coming days, but below are some high level thoughts:
Early Signing Day has de factor become THE signing day, and Coach Jeremy Pruitt and staff made sure they locked up all of their commitments (sans OL Kyree Miller, who they apparently encouraged to wait…hint hint) and also signed all five of their top uncommitted targets coming into the day. It was a no-doubt banner day for the Vols and even if they sign no more prospects the 2020 roster is now deeper and more talented across the board than it was in 2019.
At the same time, while one could argue whether or not the Vols closed any of the gap between itself and the Alabama/Georgia/LSU triumvirate at the top of the league – and the best argument in the affirmative is that those programs simply can’t get that much more talented while Tennessee has a lot of room to grow – what’s very clear is that Tennessee widened the gap between itself and the group of schools in the SEC East that it jumped in 2019. In particular, Missouri and Vanderbilt signed classes that simply aren’t going to cut it in the SEC. And while UK and South Carolina have respectable classes and some really strong position groups (e.g., UK did well on both lines) those classes would have Vol fans burning mattresses if they were in Orange and White. Arkansas, Tennessee’s rotational SEC West opponent in 2020, did nothing to make one think that on top of their already bad roster and coaching-change-driven attrition that they will be anywhere close to the Vols talent wise.
Florida, Tennessee’s arch nemesis and only rightful partner at the top of the SEC East with Georgia, also had a strong class. Using Rivals rankings, the Gators’ 24-man class finished 7th in the country with one 5-star and thirteen 4-stars and an average star ranking of 3.58, while Tennessee’s 23-man class finished 9th overall with zero 5-stars (pending QB Harrison Bailey’s deserved 5th) and thirteen 4-stars and an average star ranking of 3.52. So, yeah, pretty much equal to each other in objective metrics. Pruitt will have to outcoach and outdevelop Head Gator Dan Mullen in order to overtake the Gators.
While we wait to hear whether or not TE Darnell Washington signed at all and if so whether it was with Tennessee or Georgia, either way there are only a handful of real difference makers left in the 2020 class that Tennessee could realistically sign in February. At the very top of the short list of difference makers is of course is Auburn DL commitment Jay Hardy. Everyone knows the story – the fact that he didn’t sign with Auburn, whether his plan was always to sign in February or not, is a great indicator that the Vols have a massive opportunity to flip him and add to an already strong DL haul. Other than him, it seems like Jumbo ATH Dee Beckwith is the other main target until someone else pops up, and with Florida having already used its official visit with him in December and his brother Camryn having accepted a PWO offer from Tennessee, the Vols are likely in the driver’s seat should they choose to be. Beckwith’s issue (or, more accurately, this writer’s issue with Beckwith) is that he clearly loves basketball more than he loves football. It just so happens that while he’s a very good basketball player capable of realistically playing lower-level ball in college, he’s clearly viewed as a bigtime football prospect as evidenced by offers from the likes of the Vols and the Gators. So that will have to work itself out one way or the other. Tennessee signed an outstanding group of playmakers in WRs Jalin Hyatt and Jimmy Calloway to go with QB/ATH Jimmy Holiday, but Beckwith’s film is intriguing in that you can squint and see the kind of massive WR that doesn’t exist very often in college football. Like Holiday, he’s be an unusual chess piece for OC Jim Chaney to play with in his search to make Tennessee’s offense more dynamic and explosive.
If one agrees that other than those handful above there just aren’t really any unsigned prospects that are going to move the needle for the Vols, then the question becomes what is the best use of the available scholarships. Rolling them over to a 2021 class that should be Pruitt’s best since he began his tenure in Knoxville given the upward trajectory of the program, the recruiting staff he currently has (even before any potential upgrades in that area) as well as an unusually strong crop of instate talent, is a viable option. The other is making prudent use of the Transfer Portal. “Prudent” is the operative word here, and in this case it translates to “former elite prospects who are leaving elite programs.” For example, Aubrey Solomon and Deangelo Gibbs. That’s the kind of talent, whether it is immediately available or you have to wait a year, that’s worth using a scholarship on. A contra example would be (and we mean no disrespect) Madre London. Tennessee might not yet have a roster capable of winning the SEC, but it also no longer has positions of simply glaring need where a random Grad Transfer could just step in and immediately start. This isn’t Georgia Tech with Ryan Johnson or Central Florida and UCF. Now, currently there aren’t many of those. Right now, there is recent UGA portaler DE Robert Beal or Alabama transfer DB Scooby Carter and that’s about it. After the bowl games there are likely to be more that shake out though, and that’s the kind of talent Tennessee should be focused on adding with its remaining openings.