If you’re reading this, you’re well aware of the disaster that has been the start of Tennessee’s season. At 1-3 with a historic loss to Georgia State, a blown home game against BYU, and (yet another) loss to Florida – this time in blowout fashion – it would be difficult to have envisioned a worse way for the 2019 season to begin. At the same time, it’s easy to wonder what this start (and forecasted end) to the season will do to Tennessee’s 2020 recruiting class. What was once a dream of a class that could end up as high as the Top 5 if things broke right now has the looks of one that the staff will have to scratch and claw in order to keep in the Top 15-20.
Job #1 of course is to hold onto Tennessee’s current commitments, a group of (currently) 14 prospects that ranks #15 nationally, #7 in the SEC, and #3 in the SEC East (behind only UGA and then barely UF) in terms of average stars. Particularly given the struggles of Jarrett Guarantano and the lack of anything resembling a future “sure thing” behind him, keeping QB Harrison Bailey in the class is paramount. But he’s not the only one, as the rest of the class contains really, really good players as evidenced by the disparity between these rankings and those that consider quantity (where the Vols rank #23 nationally). So making sure these guys are 100% bought in is the first step.
From there, there is one thing has definitively changed since the salad days of just a month or so ago when Vol fans had dreams of a breakthrough season and saw their team deep in the mix with the elite of the elite among high school prospects. Landing guys like WR Arik Gilbert; TE Darnell Washington; LB Noah Sewell; WRs Rakim Jarrett, Thaiu Jones Bell and Arian Smith; and OL Marcus Dumervil – let alone more than one of them(!) – has become almost impossible. If you’re Tennessee in 2019 – not Tennessee in 1999 or even 2009 – you need to have more than bigtime recruiters like Brian Nidermeyer and Tee Martin to beat out the likes of Alabama, Clemson, and Georgia for prospects like that. You need to be showing progress on the field in terms of wins and losses. Those recruiting dynamos can get you in the door and even get you unofficial and official visits from elite players, but in order to actually get their signatures when their alternatives are playing for titles you have to at least show that that kind of winning is on the horizon. And that’s incredibly tough to sell right now.
But here’s the sunny side: For quite a few of Tennessee’s top targets – not the 5-stars but still guys the Vols staff would have LOVED to have gotten commitments from even before this disastrous season started – their other top schools are also having very, very bad seasons. To wit:
4-star DT Omari Thomas is thought to have Ole Miss at the top of his list along with Tennessee. Texas A&M is also in the mix and Alabama could be a factor should they choose to be, but the Black Bears seem like the main competition right now. And Ole Miss is currently 2-2 – with a loss to regional G5 rival Memphis to boot – with realistically only 2-3 potential wins left (Mississippi State, Vandy, and New Mexico State). Not a very popular choice with Ole Miss fans to begin with, and with a reasonable buyout, Matt Luke seems to be in a very precarious situation.
4-star LB Bryson Eason is down to Tennessee and Arkansas. The Hogs currently sit at 2-2, fresh off a home loss to San Jose State(!), and while theoretically they have 1-2 potential wins on their schedule (Mississippi State and Western Kentucky) Head Coach Chad Morris hasn’t beaten an FBS foe while at Arkansas. After going 2-10 and 0-8 in the SEC in his first season, to say Morris’s tenure in Fayetteville looks far less than promising would be an understatement.
4-stars OLB Reggie Grimes and LB/RB Len’neth Whitehead are two players for whom the Vols are battling South Carolina. And the Cocks are off to a brutal 1-3 – with now 6 consecutive losses to FBS schools – in Will Muschamp’s 4th season. They’ve got at best 4 tossup games left against Kentucky, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and App State. As bad as things seem in Knoxville right now they are as bad or worse in Columbia as Cock fans expected much more this deep into Muschamp’s tenure. If he’s not already in danger of losing his job then it seems certain that Muschamp will enter his fifth season on a very hot seat.
OLB Sa’vell Smalls is a 5-star player from the West Coast who, at least before the season, appeared to have the Vols and FSU at the top of his list and seemed like the most likely of 5-star pulls for Tennessee. With FSU sitting at a record of 2-2 that includes an embarrassing escape against Louisiana Monroe they are no better off than Tennessee is in terms of the season outlook. The instate Washington Huskies look like a real player here as well, but Smalls has certainly expressed a willingness to leave the state/region as well as a keen interest in Coach Jeremy Pruitt’s reputation on defense, and nether of those should be discounted. If there’s one 5-star that Niedermeyer should be focused on it’s probably Smalls.
Then there are instate stud Defensive Linemen Tyler Baron and Jay Hardy, two players for whom the Vols are presumed to be big leaders despite the horrific start to the season. Nailing those two down is absolutely imperative and at least right now still seems likely barring a worst-case kind of finish.
If someone told Coach Pruitt right now that he could be assured to sign the current commitment list, Baron and Hardy, and then Thomas, Eason, Whitehead, Grimes, and Smalls, one can be 100% sure he’d take that deal before you could even finish the sentence. Whether he and his staff can make that happen remains to be seen. However, if they could manage to do that and then finish out the class from the list below* (the majority of which are 4-stars prospects) – let alone convince one or more of the aforementioned 5-stars to sign up – that would be huge for the future of the program. Even a casual fan knows that the best players on the team are freshman, sophomores, and the JUCOs that Pruitt recruited. It is of utmost importance that the 2020 class further improve the overall talent in the program.
DL Octavius Oxendine
DL Jasheen Davis
DL Jacolbe Cowan
DL Desmond Evans
LB Kaden Johnson
LB Martavis French
LB Jemari Littlejohn
DB Kendall Dennis
DB Joel Williams
DB Mike Harris
DB Javier Morton
WR Dazalin Worsham
WR Kentron Poitier
RB Michael Drennen
RB Marvin Scott
RB Talaun Patton
OL Chris Morris
OL Tariq Stewart
*List does not assume any head/assistant coaching changes anywhere, including at the struggling programs mentioned above, which would presumably add other prospects to the list
While there is much in terms of opportunity lost due to the Vols poor start to the season – and the ability to add more truly no-brainer elite talent is at the top of that list – there is still a real chance to add high priority players due to similar circumstances at rival schools. And while this is not a column in which we’ll be making the case for Tennessee to stand by Pruitt regardless of how the rest of the season plays out, there is no question that stability in the form of a coach staying on for his 3rd season and beyond – missing over the last eleven years – would be ideal. Obviously the best case scenario is for the Vols to turn things around and salvage the rest of the season, especially while playing tons of young players. That would go a long way towards righting the recruiting ship for this class. However, given what’s happening elsewhere there is still a path for Tennessee to end up signing a class that helps the program take a step forward, even if it’s not as big of a step as was once thought possible.