Out on the Weekend: Recruiting Preview of the Orange & White Game

This weekend Tennessee and Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt will finish its 2019 spring practice with a final scrimmage in what is mostly a showcase for the University and the football (and sometimes basketball) program.  As usual there will be plenty of recruits on hand, and for the second year in a row there will actually be a handful of official visitors as some recruits take advantage of that relatively new rule.

When it comes to competing for visitors this weekend, Tennessee is going head to head against the likes of SEC schools Alabama, Florida, Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Missouri; ACC schools North Carolina, NC State and Miami; Big 10 powers Ohio State and Michigan; and Big 12 powers Texas and Oklahoma.  Obviously prospects that Tennessee is recruiting and would love to have on campus this weekend will have to make choices, and while where a prospect visits this weekend doesn’t necessarily mean a thing for where he ends up signing, the Vol staff will absolutely be trying to get some head to head “wins” against many of its primary recruiting competitors. 

As the weekend draws near, here’s what targets we know will be elsewhere:

OLB Reggie Grimes – Alabama

DB Javier Morton – Alabama

OL Paris Johnson – Ohio State (where he is committed)

DB Brian Branch – Oklahoma (Official Visit)

S Major Burns – Oklahoma (Official Visit)

TE Darnell Washington – Florida

OLB Brandon Williams – Florida

DE Desmond Evans – North Carolina

ATH Trenton Simpson – North Carolina

WR Mushin Muhammad – Texas A&M (Official Visit)

DE Will Anderson – Auburn

LB Rodney Groce – Auburn

LB Quandarrius Robinson – Auburn

And here’s who is currently set to visit Knoxville this weekend:

WR Velus Jones (Grad Transfer – USC) – Jones, who has two remaining seasons of eligibility, is an Alabama native recruited to the West Coast by new Tennessee WR Coach Tee Martin.  He’s got some familiarity with Tennessee on his own, having taken an OV to Knoxville in the 2016 cycle.  He hasn’t been incredibly productive so far in his career but is coming off the best season of his career in terms of catches and yards. Additionally, Jones has been the primary KR for USC, averaging just under 24 yards per return.

While it’s unclear if Jones is a grad transfer, assuming he would be immediately eligible and then have two seasons to play makes him an attractive addition.  Both because of the relative lack of quality/experienced depth at the position for 2019 but also because he’d effectively function as a JUCO prospect with high level major conference experience.  Another angle here is that given Tennessee’s absolute lack of projected WR depth in 2020 – currently being used as a major selling point for elite 2020 WR prospects – Jones would also allow Tennessee coaches to keep Georgia transfer Deangleo Gibbs at the Nickel/Star position instead of at WR (again, assuming Gibbs immediately eligible as well).  While Tennessee is very settled at both CB spots and one S position, they don’t have an answer yet at Star.  But in his limited practices on Defense so far Gibbs has shown out at the position – not surprising given his experience there at UGA and also simply the fact that he’s a high level prospect. 

WR EJ Williams (OV) – Williams is an elite WR who has already visited Tennessee once this spring.  As an early enrollee Williams appears to be looking to make a decision on the early side, and the Vols will get the first shot to make a big impression.  The AL native is also very high on Clemson and Alabama, with Auburn in the mix as well, so Tennessee is swimming in deep waters here.  Williams is clearly intrigued by fellow Yellowhammer State native Coach Martin and the Vols will hope to put themselves way ahead of the pack with this official visit

WR Kris Abrams-Draine – The former LSU commit and yet another WR from Alabama that Tennessee is chasing, Abrams-Draine (KAD) will be making his second trip to Knoxville this spring and his first visit anywhere since decommitting from the Tigers.  He’s a smaller WR at 6’0 and around 170 pounds, but with offers from Oregon, Florida, and of course LSU among others, the 4-star prospect has the perfect size/quickness combination for the slot.  After being committed to LSU for over a year it would seem unlikely that KAD is ready to commit somewhere else so quickly, but his return visit certainly bodes well for the Vols to remain a major player 

TE Arik Gilbert – Absolutely elite TE prospect who many are calling a once-every-10 year type of player.  Gilbert is teammates with Tennessee QB commitment Harrison Bailey – who will also be on campus.  UGA and Clemson are believed to be the frontrunners, with the Dawgs considered the leader and Alabama absolutely in the mix as well.  However, Gilbert has been on Tennessee’s campus multiple times and has a great relationship with Bailey which could be a trump card for the Vols.  Tennessee’s best hope is for Gilbert to take his recruitment the distance and give them multiple chances to get him back to Knoxville.  This will be yet another step.

RB (LB?) Tee Hodge – The Maryville product is fresh off a visit last weekend to Florida State’s spring game, and while the Seminoles have yet to offer they are still high on his list.  This will be at least the fifth time Hodge has visited campus since Pruitt took over and his second this year, so he’s very familiar with the staff and the campus.  Hodge was already big for a RB at 6’2, which Tennessee likes, but he’s recently put on a lot of (good) weight and is now at least 230 pounds.  He’s recently picked up offers from Penn State and Ole Miss to go with his Vol offer, and he seems to be blowing up a bit on the recruiting trail.  Given his size one wonders whether, like fellow Vol target Trenton Simpson, he might end up being a better LB prospect when all is said and done.  But either way it’s good for Tennessee to get him back on campus for the O&W Game and keep pushing forward in his recruitment

RB Deondre Jackson – The 3-star former Auburn commit will be making his third visit to Knoxville and second in less than four weeks.  He’s got offers from Alabama, Texas A&M and Florida to go with those from Auburn and Tennessee and brings a solid combination of power and speed with his 6’0 200+ pound frame.  With Ebony Jackson in the fold the Vols can afford to be picky with its 2nd RB spot, and Jackson is on a relatively short list of realistic targets that includes Daijun Edwards, Tank Bigsby (below), maybe Zachary Evans from Texas, and two others in Hodge and Simpson who could be better LB prospects than RBs

RB Tank Bigsby – The 4-star Bigsby, like Jackson, is a top-shelf RB prospect from Georgia.  LSU, Auburn, and South Carolina are considered the leaders right now, so Tennessee has ground to make up.  This will be Bigsby’s first visit to Knoxville so the Vols will hope to make themselves real players in this recruitment

OL Tate Ratledge – Arguably the top Offensive Tackle in the South and without a doubt one of the top in the country, Ratledge is simply an elite player at one of the most important positions in football.  Despite having grown up a Tennessee fan in a family of hardcore Tennessee fans, the Vols were third on his list as recently as 12 months ago.  However, the departure of Alabama’s Offensive Line Coach Brent Key appears to have knocked the Tide virtually off of his list, and at the same time Coach Pruitt, OL Coach Will Friend, and OC Jim Chaney (who Ratledge was close with when he was at UGA) have led a surge for the Vols.  This is a two-team race between the Vols and the (borderline) instate Dawgs, with uber recruiter Sam Pittman singlehandedly keeping UGA in it.  Ratledge has become close with Cooper Mays and Harrison Bailey, and that peer recruiting (by a potential linemate and QB, no less) along with the family ties could be hard for even Pittman to overcome.  However, UGA surely won’t go away in this one, and in fact Tate is scheduled to be at Georgia’s spring game the following weekend, and he’s no stranger to that campus either.  But make no mistake that this weekend will be a big one in this recruitment as the Vols look to continue that surge and solidify its spot at the top

OL Cooper Mays (OV) – Vol (and now UGA) legacy who has been on campus dozens of times.  Tennessee appears to be in great shape for Mays, who just last weekend one the OL MVP at the Charlotte Rivals Camp.  Tennessee would love to add Mays ASAP, as he’d not only be a strong foundational piece for the 2020 OL class but he’s also very close friends with top Vol targets Ratledge and DL Tyler Baron.  Scheduing Mays for an OV this coming weekend certainly gives off a ‘commitment watch” vibe, so this will be one to watch closely

OL Justin Rogers (OV) – Rogers is, along with Ratledge and Mays, one of Tennessee’s top 5 OL targets in the class.  The Detroit-area native was on campus last spring and then again for the Florida game this past season, making this his third visit to campus in a year.  The 5-star Guard clearly is high on Tennessee, though he does also really like OSU, Michigan, and UGA.  It’s an interesting play bringing Rogers in for an OV this early, as it’s his first of five.  But Tennessee did successfully pull this trick with Wanya Morris last year, so it’s hard to doubt Pruitt’s strategy here.  Like EJ Williams though, the key will be making such an impression that Tennessee pulls way out in front in this recruitment, enough to hold up for eight months until Early Signing Day

DB Kitan Crawford (OV) – The Texas native named a Top 3 of Tennessee, Texas and Baylor and is looking to make a decision fairly shortly.  He’s a Baylor legacy and a take for Texas, so on its face this seems like a tough pull for the Vols.  Hosting a kid from Texas on an official visit in April is a risky play, which suggests that this was the option presented to Tennessee and the staff decided to take it.  Crawford is a great looking prospect and since this will be his first visit to Knoxville so it will be interesting to see his reaction coming out of the weekend

OLB BJ Ojulari – A teammate of both Bailey and Gilbert, Ojulari will once again visit Knoxville, making it nearly a half dozen times in the last year.  Despite being the brother of current UGA player Azeez Ojulari, BJ is clearly very much open to the Vols.  The 4-star prospect also has offers from the likes of Alabama and Oklahoma and would be a perfect fit as a pass-rushing OLB in Pruitt’s defense.  The Vols will ultimately have to overcome both instate and family pressure, but they do have Bailey and familiarity on their side.  This weekend will be yet another step towards landing the kind of impactful edge rusher that is sorely needed for Tennessee’s defense

DL Deontae Craig (OV)– The Fort Wayne, IN native who attends the prestigious Culver Academies in Culver, IN received a Tennessee offer last summer and will be taking his first OV to Knoxville this weekend.  Despite an impressive offer list that includes Notre Dame (the current perceived leader), OSU, Michigan, and others, he’s a bit of an underrated prospect.  He’s an intriguing prospect due to his 6’5, 230 pound frame that has tons of room to add weight.  He’s also a high academic kid so his will likely be a different type of visit than some others.  It will be interesting to hear what Craig has to say after his first visit to Tennessee for what should be a bigtime atmosphere

DB Keshawn Lawrence – One of Tennessee’s top instate and overall targets, the 4-star S from the Midstate will be making his second visit to campus in two weeks.  The Vols seem to be surging here after seeing their stock dip a bit after former DB Coach Terry Fair, with whom Lawrence had a great relationship, left the staff.  New DC (and de facto DB Coach) Derrick Ansley – an ace recruiter – has made great strides with this relationship in a short period of time and that’s paying off with this visit.  A big development for the Vols here 

OL Richard Leonard – The Kentucky commitment from Florida will be making his first trip to Tennessee this weekend. He has instate offers from Florida State and Miami – both of which he’s recently visited – as well as Oregon, West Virginia and others.  His commitment doesn’t seem particularly strong right now, so the Vols will look to size him up, make a good impression so as to get themselves as involved in the recruitment as they want, and go from there

Commitments: Along with Bailey, DL Dominic Bailey, RB Ebony Jackson, and LS Will Albright will all be on campus

That’s obviously an outstanding list, including many of Tennessee’s top targets.  The Vol staff has done a great job all winter/spring of getting prospects to campus and as the culmination of that the Orange & White Game, especially considering the other schools fighting to get many of these same kids to campus, is a huge win.

Elite prospects who the Vols will be fighting to get to campus:

ATH Demarcus Beckwith

ATH Kristian Story

DB Joel Williams

DL Jaquari Wiggles

Memphis natives DL/OL Omari Thomas, WR Darin Turner and RB Jabari Small will be at Memphis on Friday night so their respective weekend plans are up in the air

Instate Prospects who Tennessee would love to have on campus

DL Jay Hardy

DL Tyler Baron

OL Marcus Henderson

DL Tre’vonn Rybka

LB Bryson Eason

LB Martavius French

ATH Elijah Young

Obviously more visitors will be added to Tennessee’s list between now and then, hopefully from the groups above, and the Vols will no doubt host prospects from the 2021 and even 2022 classes as well.  DE Dylan Brooks, the newly ranked #26 overall player in the 2021 class, is one who’s already scheduled to be in attendance.

Tennessee is already off to an outstanding start with the 2020 class with three of its five committed prospects ranked as 4-stars, the fourth likely to end up as a 4-star in RB Ebony Jackson, and he fifth an instate LongSnapper.  Coach Pruitt will certainly be hoping to add to that quality with at worst having made headway with multiple elite prospects and at best that progress as well as more commitments coming out of the weekend.

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