Tennessee Vols Early Signing Day: An Uneventful Ending for a Solid Start

Note: Check back in the coming days for offensive and defensive capsules from UT’s early signing period signees.

If you were hoping for a massive bang to end Jeremy Pruitt’s first full recruiting cycle’s early signing period, Wednesday left you flat.

If you hoped the Vols would gain ground in the arms race that is the rough-and-tumble SEC, Wednesday left you frustrated.

But there’s no real reason to feel anything but optimistic as Pruitt and Tennessee enter the next phase of this recruiting cycle leading up to February’s final signing day of the cycle. The Vols currently have the nation’s 17th-ranked recruiting class with 20 pledges, according to the 247Sports Composite ratings. That’s only good for seventh in the SEC behind Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M, LSU, Auburn and Florida.

While that’s not good enough for the Vols to close the gap, there are plenty of monstrous fish left in this Big Orange ocean. It all starts tomorrow as all eyes on Rocky Top rest on the decision of 4-star Memphis running back Eric Gray, who likely favors UT and is a big piece of the puzzle for a Vols team needing help at offensive skill positions. Gray’s pledge on Thursday would put the Vols ahead of Florida with the same number of commits and vault them into second in the SEC East in the recruiting rankings.

That’s not an awful step forward, especially for a 5-7 program.

Throw in 5-star offensive tackle Darnell Wright — whom the Vols currently sit in a steady lead — and high 4-star linebacker Quavarius Crouch, who UT must battle Clemson for until his announcement on January 5, and there are a few needle-movers who can help the aesthetics of the class. Other vitally important needs can be met if 4-star safety Anthony Harris and 4-star JUCO linebacker Lakia Henry remain Vols and Tennessee can convince another couple of marquee players to jump onboard.

If those things happen, a class that will rank between 10-15 is possible, and that’s a big deal — even if there were at times over the past few weeks hope that Pruitt would close stronger, much the way he helped Alabama, Florida State and Georgia do during his time as a defensive coordinator at those programs.

There is plenty of good and bad for the Vols about this signing cycle, and we’d be remiss not to cover it all. So, here we go…

The Good

Tennessee met major, vital needs at offensive line and in the defensive backfield during this recruiting cycle, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility a lot of the guys coming in will find their way into the rotation — if not the starting lineup — right away.

The class’s bell cow is 5-star offensive tackle Wanya Morris, who UT beat out Auburn and others for. He’s an athletic big man who’ll start out at tackle for a team desperately needing to shore up a unit that’s been historically horrible the past two years. If you want to pinpoint the biggest reason for this two-year debacle (and really for the decade of futility) look no further than the offensive front and the lack of development at that area.

Morris is a future star-in-the-making, and the Vols may need him to start in 2019 and take his lumps, depending on the health of Trey Smith.

Jackson Lampley is a Tennessee legacy and a 4-star offensive guard, and he could potentially help right away; Melvin McBride is a 3-star offensive lineman from Memphis who fills a need even if he’s a developmental player; and Chris Akporoghene is a player some sites [such as Rivals] rates as a 4-star talent. Those guys are vitally important to Pruitt turning around the program.

Another area where the Vols desperately needed help and got it was a defensive backfield that lacked athleticism in 2018. Yes, the emergence of true freshmen Alontae Taylor, Bryce Thompson and Trevon Flowers was encouraging, but there was little depth behind them. Between the unsigned Harris and 4-stars Jaylen McCullough and Tyus Fields, 3-star cornerback Warren Burrell and safety Aaron Beasley [both of which are 4-star prospects on other sites] the Vols got a whole lot longer, deeper and more athletic on the back end.

That’s two major wins for the Vols in areas of great need, and if Wright adds his name to the list of pledges and UT goes and perhaps gets another DB, it’s a great year in two areas. It was always going to be more than just a one-year rebuild, anyway.

The Bad

When you consider just how many high-profile kids Tennessee brought on visits the past few weeks, none of those guys ultimately chose to come to Knoxville. It was eerily reminiscent of last year’s late cycle, when Pruitt brought in all those 5-star defensive backs, only to watch them fall off the board to rivals and programs out West.

Wednesday saw Norton and Logue head to Georgia, Anderson stick with South Carolina, JUCO defensive end Nick Figueroa stay out west and play for USC, Justin Eboigbe choosing not to flip from Alabama to UT, Jaylen Ellis committing to Baylor despite a last-week visit, and so on.

There’s nothing wrong with Pruitt swinging for some fences. But the Vols simply aren’t Georgia and Alabama right now, and there comes a point in time where you back off and settle for ground-rule doubles rather than hope for slap singles and stolen bases later.

That make sense? If you catch my drift, Pruitt needs to remain his relentless self on the recruiting trail, but the Vols can’t afford to round out the class with fallback plans, and if you have to back off the elite players to sign more “very good” players, you identify that need in enough time to get the job done. It’s a hard balance, and, quite frankly, it’s one Pruitt hasn’t been great at lately.

Tennessee probably knows it can’t compete with Alabama and Georgia on Saturdays if it doesn’t compete with them in prospects’ living rooms. But the bottom line is, while Pruitt has won a few of those battles, he’s getting his butt whipped for the most part against the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs.

Join the club. So is everybody else, after all. But it’s disappointing to UT fans who want to get back to elite status and thought it would by hiring an elite recruiter. Pruitt is learning some tough lessons, and the Vols need to show some improvement on the field first.

The Ugly

If you’re like me and love Tennessee getting Tennessee boys to play for the Vols, this year wasn’t for you. It’s going to be hard for me to forgive Pruitt for that one, especially considering some of the “settles” that happened late in the class.

UT flat-out missed on Bill Norton and Zion Logue — two Volunteer State prospects who followed Cade Mays’ lead from a year ago and decided they wanted to play for the rival Georgia Bulldogs instead of Tennessee despite Pruitt trying hard to flip them. Logue seemed to have a sour demeanor toward the Vols from the jump, and Norton never could quite overcome the fact he was smitten with the Dawgs, even though UT’s head coach made him a pet project throughout the cycle.

In the Vols’ undying love for those two prospects, they let an excellent player who would have loved to be a Vol early in the cycle in Murfreesboro’s Joseph Anderson go elsewhere. Now, UT gets to face him in a Gamecocks uniform for the next four years, and a late push wasn’t enough to sway him back. That one’s going to sting.

Receiver Trey Knox wasn’t a priority at times during the cycle, and he chose Arkansas. Meanwhile, the Vols settled for Jerrod Means on Wednesday — the only “new” player who signed with UT on Wednesday who wasn’t previously committed. That’s not a knock on Means who is a 6’2″ pass-catcher who possesses quality speed — something Knox doesn’t have — but you have to wonder if UT deciding against pursuing those guys and others like Woodi Washington (Oklahoma) and Lance Wilhoite (Oregon) won’t sting later.

The Wrap

It’s important to note a few things about Wednesday.

First, the most important victory for Pruitt’s program came when strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald elected not to return to his alma mater of Maryland to join Mike Locksley’s staff with the Terrapins when it looked like he would just a day before. 

The revolving door of UT’s program and strength and conditioning in particular has led to uneven results, weak players and inconsistency. Fitzgerald is a huge part of what Pruitt wants to achieve, and he’s being paid handsomely. For him to stick around is vital to the players already on the roster and for the Vols getting bigger and stronger and turning things around in 2019. So, that’s the biggest recruiting win of the early signing period.

Wrapping things up, it’s easy for Tennessee fans to talk about Alabama and Georgia because they sit at the pinnacle of the conference — and all of college football, really — right now. It sucks to see LSU and Texas A&M have such massive years on the recruiting trail while the Vols middle around with a good — but not great — class (at least on paper).

But it’s important to remember where UT is as a program. It’s not OK to lose to Vanderbilt and Missouri, and that’s what the Vols are doing lately. Tennessee has to get where they’re beating those programs first.

Then, South Carolina, Florida and others like them come next.

Then, maybe you can set your sights on Alabama and Georgia.

It’s sobering, but it’s the reality. Getting a class with more strength, size,  bulk and athleticism perhaps gets UT closer to that first and second steps, though the Vols are nowhere near that other tier. Ultimately getting to any of those next tiers and out of the SEC cellar will rely on Pruitt’s ability to develop players, Fitzgerald’s ability to transform these dudes into SEC players and, ultimately, UT’s ability to identify those next-level players who can help teams win games.

Mizzou had one in Drew Lock, and Vanderbilt had one in Kyle Shurmur, and even though those guys didn’t elevate those programs to championship-caliber, they got them past Tennessee. It’s Pruitt’s charge to find the guys who can make the same impact for the Vols in those games and in others on the plain above.

Are those guys in this class?

We’ll see soon enough.

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No mention of the bizarre comments about the offensive coordinator search? I will of course stay patient (as if I have some other choice) but I’m beginning to see some red flags.