Gameday on Rocky Top looks at the Tennessee Volunteers’ early signees. First up, the offense…
CHRIS AKPOROGHENE, 6’4″, 294 OFFENSIVE TACKLE, BRADENTON, FL (IMG ACADEMY)
Akporoghene is one of the most intriguing prospects in Tennessee’s entire class. He is a native of Africa whose family moved to Tennessee, and he played his final year of high school at prestigious IMG Academy. Though he is blessed with excellent size and strength, the offensive lineman is very raw and was a bit of a polarizing prospect among the major recruiting services.
Akporoghene is a 4-star prospect according to Rivals, but 247Sports thinks he is a major project and rated him as the nation’s 2,169-ranked player. To be fair, ESPN ranks him somewhere in the middle as the nation’s. No. 61 offensive tackle. He’s only played three years of organized football, so his best days are in front of him.
The discrepancy of ratings didn’t stop some of the nation’s premiere programs from coming after him. He chose the “home state” Vols over Oregon, Michigan, Mississippi State and others. It will be interesting to see if he can step right in and get reps for a line that needs him, or if he is a developmental guy who will need some time.
SEAN BROWN, 6’5″, 250 TIGHT END, ROME, GA (COOSA HS)
The North Georgia product is an intriguing athlete with a big frame who looks like a quality in-line tight end who can be an asset in the running game. Brown could grow into a number of positions including offensive tackle or defensive end, but he’ll start out at tight end, where several programs came after him.
Brown ultimately chose Tennessee over Auburn among his several offers, and he will be a nice complement in this class to Jackson Lowe, who is more of a receiving tight end. The Vols need a variety of players in that tight end room with Dominick Wood-Anderson entering his final season in Knoxville and a lack of other proven players.
Brown isn’t going to be an exciting player who can break a big play, but he is the kind of tight end necessary in running situations and in two tight-end sets. If he grows into another position, it would meet a need, too. He’s a high-upside prospect with a future in orange.
ERIC GRAY, 5’10”, 193 RUNNING BACK, MEMPHIS, TN (LAUSANNE COLLEGIATE SCHOOL)
Tennessee got a major boost to the class on the day after early signing period began when Gray chose UT over South Carolina, Texas A&M, Michigan and others earlier today.
The former Wolverines commitment canceled multiple visits to Ann Arbor this season and instead visited Knoxville several times, growing his relationship with lead recruiter David Johnson, coach Jeremy Pruitt and the rest of the staff. With the Vols desperately needing a true runner in this class, Gray fits a major need. He is an explosive player who is a terrific one-cut runner with elusiveness to get into space.
Gray isn’t going to be a blazer in the open field, but he is the type of runner around which you can build an offense and reminds me a lot of the Tennessee Titans’ Dion Lewis. If Gray develops the way he should, he could be an NFL player. I like his ability to run between the tackles and outside as well as catching the ball out of the backfield. He’ll be a nice teammate to Ty Chandler.
RAMEL KEYTON, 6’3″, 185 WIDE RECEIVER, MARIETTA, GA (MARIETTA HS)
Tennessee didn’t load up on elite receivers in this class, but a big, physical target who has the potential to step right in and play also just happened to open up an important pipeline to a hotbed of talent.
Keyton hails from Marietta High School, and UT already got a head start on the 2020 class by securing its quarterback of the future from that school in Harrison Bailey. There are several other high-caliber Division I players who can help from there, too. Keyton is by no means the least of the bunch. He had a huge year for the program and, like several other targets on Tennessee’s board, chose UT over Auburn. Others such as Alabama, Clemson, Florida and more powerhouses were among his 26 claimed offers.
Keyton isn’t a blazer, but he has great hands, can go up and get the ball and is physical. He has a nice skill set that is comparable to current Vol Jauan Jennings, and it’s not ridiculous to think he’ll be able to slide right into the rotation, especially considering UT needs all the playmakers on offense it can get.
He was one of the biggest coups of the class.
JACKSON LAMPLEY, 6’4″, 300 OFFENSIVE GUARD, NASHVILLE, TN (MONTGOMERY BELL ACADEMY)
One of the first pledges for Pruitt also may wind up as one of the most important. Jackson Lampley is the son of VFL Brad Lampley, so orange is in his blood. He possesses good size and played high school ball for one of the best programs in the state.
I like his violent hands at the point of attack, and he is a strong run blocker who has a nasty streak. Though you always like to see linemen get a year in the strength and conditioning program to get stronger before they’re thrown into the fray, Lampley has the skill set, hands and footwork to step into the rotation. The Vols obviously need players along the offensive front who can make an impact, and Lampley may.
He chose his father’s alma mater over 19 other programs including Auburn, Arkansas, Florida, LSU, Penn State, Texas A&M and others.
JACKSON LOWE, 6’5″, 235 TIGHT END, CARTERSVILLE, GA (CARTERSVILLE HS)
Lowe committed to the Vols and lead recruiter Brian Niedermeyer early in the process and never wavered, and he was one of the top targets at the position early and stayed that way despite a lot of interest from other top programs, including Alabama, Clemson and Auburn.
He may be just a 3-star player, but he’s an elite prospect who can really stretch the field and provide a spark in the passing game. He is physically developed and ready to step right in and play in an offense needing to do a better job of utilizing the pass-catching tight end. Lowe played for Cartersville High School, where he was a deep playoff participant every year, so he’s used to winning.
Lowe is another win in the Peach State, and the Vols really need for him to make an impact, especially after DWA leaves after the 2019 season. Is Lowe going to be able to give UT some important reps right away? Don’t rule it out.
BRIAN MAURER, 6’3″, 199 PRO-STYLE QUARTERBACK, OCALA, FL (WEST PORT HS)
Tennessee’s search for a quarterback went a while back in the spring, but the Vols ultimately rested on Maurer, the Sunshine State signal-caller who came along a little late in the recruiting cycle but wound up being an Elite 11 player.
The Vols are fortunate to have him.
Maurer is blessed with good arm strength and is also an athletic type who is not statuesque in the pocket. He had a strong senior season and could benefit from a year in the weight room to bulk up. But Maurer looks like a high-upside signal-caller who can do a lot of things with the ball in his hands. Ironically, he visited Ohio State and Tennessee in the same swing, and the Buckeyes chose to take a commitment from Dwan Mathis instead of Maurer. Mathis flipped from OSU to Georgia on early signing day, prompting Maurer to tweet about it and talk about how happy he is with UT.
With Will McBride and Keller Chryst gone, the Vols need quality competition behind center. Jarrett Guarantano did not have a bad redshirt sophomore season, but UT needs better play at that position. If Maurer or rising redshirt freshman JT Shrout can pressure him, it will benefit all parties. It’s also possible the Vols add a transfer at the position. But the door is at least cracked for Maurer to come in and compete. We’ll see if he can take advantage.
MELVIN MCBRIDE, 6’3″, 312 OFFENSIVE GUARD, MEMPHIS, TN (WHITEHAVEN HS)
One of the prospects who had little fanfare before committing to Tennessee is Memphis offensive trenchman McBride. He’s an interesting, massive prospect who could have projected on either side of the line of scrimmage. It appears he’ll start his career in Knoxville on the offensive side where there are mammoth needs for quality players.
He’s a developmental guy who is a great athlete for his size and played just one year of football. Pruitt and Co. love that type of athleticism, and McBride is a former basketball player who has good knee bend, which helps him in pass-blocking leverage. Though he probably needs at least a year to get acclimated to the college game, he is a guy who could be a nice pickup.
McBride didn’t have a slew of major offers, ultimately choosing UT over Arkansas, Memphis, Louisville, Cincinnati and others. This probably isn’t a guy who is going to come in and play right away, but with some time in the S&C program and some coaching, he could be an important asset down the road.
JERROD MEANS, 6’2″, 212 WIDE RECEIVER, HAMPTON, GA (LOVEJOY HS)
The last time Tennessee went into Lovejoy High School – a program several past Vols have hailed from – for a wide receiver, he wound up pretty strong. Unfortunately for UT, it just wasn’t in orange and white. That was Preston Williams, who was a high-profile recruit and Alabama legacy who stuck with Tennessee and earned important reps before transferring out of the program. He wound up at Colorado State, where he was one of the most prolific receivers in the country this season, and he’ll bypass his senior season and head to the NFL.
The Vols passed on JUCO receiver Javonta Payton in favor of Means, who visited Knoxville the final weekend before signing day and signed with the Vols on Wednesday. UT kept that one quiet, unlike last year’s late find as a Georgia receiver (Jordan Young) who committed to the Vols and flipped to Florida State just before signing day.
Pruitt bragged Means can probably play multiple positions on either side of the ball, but the 6’3″, 213-pound prospect who ran a 4.4 40-yard dash at camp is a player the Vols like as a receiver, so that’s where he’ll start. You can’t teach that kind of speed, and hopefully, he’ll be a weapon quickly.
WANYA MORRIS, 6’6″ 312 OFFENSIVE TACKLE, LOGANVILLE, GA (GRAYSON HS)
Alphabetically, Morris may be the last name on this list, but he’s arguably the offensive cornerstone of the Pruitt era in Knoxville. Morris is a 5-star offensive tackle who had offers from virtually everybody in the country and was the No. 1 draft pick in the Under Armour All-American Game.
The Vols are getting an elite blocker who will probably start out trying to help the Vols solidify the exterior of the offensive line. He chose UT over Auburn, where his buddy Owen Pappoe signed, but Morris could have gone anywhere, really. If Tennessee can team him with Darnell Wright, it will be a heck of a duo to build the offense around for years to come.
When Gray committed, he mentioned a couple of good linemen the Vols have coming in next year – alluding to Morris and (the still-uncommitted) Wright, so if the Vols can close the deal, it’s a couple of players who make other prospects stand up and take notice.
Morris is big and strong and smart, and he’s got the kind of attributes and skill set that translate into early playing time. Obviously, that will have to be earned, but with Tennessee’s O-line situation he has a massive opportunity to fill a major void right away.