The composite recruiting rankings at 247 go back to 2000. That February, the Vols signed five five-stars – pretty good! – including Michael Munoz, Jason Respert, and Casey Clausen. The next two years, Tennessee signed three five-stars each February, giving the program 11 five-stars from 2000-2002.
From 2003-2023, the program has 14 five-stars. And the Vols have never signed more than two in the same class since ’02.
Even getting two became a rare feat. After that run in the early 2000s, each Vol coach (more or less) had just one signing class that included a pair of five stars:
- Phillip Fulmer did it in 2007 with Eric Berry and Ben Martin
- Some combination of Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley did it in February 2010 with Da’Rick Rogers and Ja’Wuan James
- Butch Jones did it in 2015 with Kahlil McKenzie and Kyle Phillips
- Jeremy Pruitt did it in 2019 with Darnell Wright & Wanya Morris
And now, Josh Heupel happily joins the list with Nico Iamaleava and Chandavian Bradley.
To some degree, it speaks to the power of Tennessee’s program that each coaching staff made this happen, despite the ongoing struggles on the field. It’s rare for a program to recruit at a Top 10 level without winning 10+ games first.
One thing that’s increasingly been an issue for Tennessee, and maybe for everyone via the transfer portal: getting your highest-rated recruits to actually become your highest-rated players over multiple years.
Nico and Bradley look like they’ll be the top two players in this year’s class. Addison Nichols and Tyre West will see action for the first time this fall as the highest-rated players in the Class of 2022. Before them, the players at the top of Tennessee’s board haven’t always turned into sure things, even beyond the most recent coaching turnover:
- 2021: Aaron Willis (portal), Kaemen Marley (portal)
- 2020: Keyshawn Lawrence (portal), Omari Thomas
- 2019: Darnell Wright, Wanya Morris (portal)
- 2018: J.J. Peterson (portal), Alontae Taylor
- 2017: Trey Smith, Ty Chandler (portal)
Chandler and Morris started for the Vols over multiple seasons before transferring out. Jarrett Guarantano would be on this list from 2016, joining other names like Marquez North and Da’Rick Rogers who did some really good things in a Tennessee uniform, but whose careers ultimately led elsewhere.
And, as we know, coaching changes can lead to wipeouts of entire classes of elite prospects. Pruitt’s highest-rated class in 2019 thankfully retains Darnell Wright, who has a chance to be one of Tennessee’s best players this fall. But its next three highest-rated players were Wanya Morris, Henry To’oTo’o, and Quavaris Crouch. The 2020 group thankfully retains Omari Thomas, who will have a chance to make a big impact on the defensive line this fall. But three of its four highest-rated players were Keyshawn Lawrence, Harrison Bailey, and Malachi Wideman.
And the calendar worked hard against the 2021 group, with early signees inking with Jeremy Pruitt in December 2020 before he was let go in January of 2021. Aaron Willis, Kaemen Marley, Kaidon Salter, and Julian Nixon have all left the program.
So that’s all four of Tennessee’s highest-rated signees in 2021, three of four in 2020, and three of four in 2019 who left the program.
Don’t underestimate the job this current staff is doing.
The transfer portal shows no signs of disappearing, and the portal can giveth too: Hendon Hooker is one of many examples of how the Vols used the portal to speed up a rebuild that could have been otherwise crippling.
In the meantime, Heupel is recruiting at the peak of what any of his post-Fulmer predecessors were able to accomplish with five-stars. Despite x number of years of struggle, Tennessee can clearly still attract and earn commitments from the best in college football. If Heupel can simply provide stability, more of those players might stick around longer than we’ve seen with the last group. And there is plenty of excitement that this staff will do far more than just be stable.