Having built Tennessee’s roster to the point that some are talking about the Vols as a darkhorse in the SEC East in 2020, it’s clear that Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt has done an outstanding job recruiting since taking over just weeks before the inaugural Early Signing Period in the 2018 recruiting cycle. Now that he’s accomplished that task, the next step, as we’ve spoken often of, is for Tennessee to step up its success in landing more and more elite players. To refresh, we’ve (arbitrarily) defined elite players as those with offers from at least one of the following programs: Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oregon and Penn State. These programs have at least one College Football Playoff appearance and/or at least one NY6 bowl game AND multiple recent recruiting classes that consistently land in the Top 5-10 nationally.
As we all know, the NCAA’s ban on in-person (i.e., on campus) recruiting – at first through April 15th and since extended to at least May 31st – has thrown the entire college football recruiting world for a loop. Prospects who planned to tour multiple college campuses can no longer do so, schools who planned to host prospects for spring practices and/or spring games can no longer do so either. Therefore, schools have been limited to phone calls and electronic communication via texting, video chats, and Twitter messaging and graphics. As almost all of that is done in private and very little of it is announced by prospects, any traction that schools have gained (or lost) with particular players is somewhat unknown to the general public.
That said, over the last week or so there have been quite a few prospects putting out lists of their top schools, as well as other intel that various recruiting services have been able to gather. And the upshot for Tennessee is that Pruitt and his staff seem to have made quite a bit of headway with a relatively large number of players, most of whom fall into that “elite” category and some of whom haven’t even yet made it to Knoxville for a visit.
As we noted back in late February, new Tennessee Tight End Coach Joe Osovet has gotten the Vols involved with an inordinate amount of high level prospects in general and particularly in the DMV region along with PA and NY. And although the Vols (at least temporarily) lost out to Maryland for the commitment of bigtime Pass Rusher Demoiun Robinson, Tennessee just this past week made the latest round of cuts for four(!) players from Maryland, including Robinson’s high school teammate 4-star DL Marcus Bradley (Top 6: Tennessee, Texas A&M, LSU, OSU, USC and Maryland), as well as three teammates at Baltimore’s St. Frances Academy (where newly signed Vol DL Dominic Bailey just graduated from) in four star ILB Aaron Willis (Top 7: Tennessee, Alabama, LSU, Texas, Michigan, Maryland and Arizona State); four-star defensive tackle Katron Evans (Top 8: Tennessee, Alabama, Arizona State, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, TCU, and USC), and 4-star OLB Jamon Dumas-Johnson (Top 10: Tennessee, Auburn, Ole Miss, Michigan, Florida, Maryland, Georgia, Penn State, Texas A&M and Arizona State). Few notable things from all of those lists are that Maryland is so far of doing a good job of staying involved with the massive amount of top-tier talent in its state thanks to the recruiting prowess of Head Coach Mike Locksley and that Texas A&M and LSU are going to be the out of state programs against whom the Vols will be battling for this region’s talent.
Another longer-term target for the Vols from Baltimore who Osovet got the Vols involved with when he was an off-the-field coach, WR Donte Thornton, released a Top 12, which in and of itself is rather meaningless. But the scuttle continues to be that Tennessee is a big player in this recruitment. Thornton, along with top-shelf WRs like Deion Colzie, Julian Nixon – who named the Vols his leader over the weekend- and perhaps longtime instate target Adonai Mitchell are the types of talent that the Vols likely could not turn away despite having less of a need at WR this cycle and with the recent commitment of instate star Walker Merrill giving Tennessee two commits at the position already.
Incidentally, Merrill’s commitment can do nothing but help with his good friend and fellow instate bigtimer, 4-star LB Junior Colson. The Vols have made a big move for Colson during this time period and now that he’s moved up his commitment timeline to May it feels like good news is coming for the Vols. Michigan, in particular, won’t go down without a fight for him. But between having ace recruiter Brian Niedermeyer in charge of his recruitment as well as his position coach as well as the instate pull and location being particularly important to him, the Vols seem like they’ll be in a good spot whenever this dead period end.
At the QB position, one where logic says programs should take at least one every cycle, the Vols find themselves in the top groupings for two high-end talents. Top 100 overall player Kaidon Salter released a Top 11, with the chatter being that the Vols are right at the top of his list along with Auburn. Longtime target Christian Veilleux (another Osovet guy!), who has been to Knoxville multiple times, released a Top 4 of Tennessee, Clemson, Penn State and Duke. The Vols probably could have had Veilleux’s commitment had they pushed in the January/February time period, but since then Clemson has come through with an offer after a campus visit and PSU and The Fightin’ Cuts have also made their moves. There is an ongoing debate as to whether Tennessee should eschew signing a QB in 2021 and instead go 100% balls to the wall for instate 2022 phenom Ty Simpson, leaving themselves the opportunity to go get a graduate transfer QB for 2021 should the need exist. That’s a subject for another time, but it does seem like the Vols would take Salter right now and at the same time that they continue to evaluate Veilleux and hope that his timeline is such that they have an opportunity to push before he makes a decision.
The Vols have also made themselves very big factors for two(!) 5-star players from the Sunshine State. ILB Terrence Lewis released a Top 6 that included the Vols along with Texas A&M, LSU, Alabama, Penn State and Nebraska. Importantly, the Florida native doesn’t have any of the Big 3 homestate schools, including Florida where he used to be committed. The thought is that Texas A&M is his leader at the moment, but at the same time the Vols are believed to be nipping at the heels for the elite defender. Although Florida is thought to be the leader for fellow 5-star Leonard Taylor, 247 Sports named Tennessee as “a darkhorse of sorts” in the DL’s recruitment, with UGA is a factor as well. Considering Taylor has yet to visit Knoxville, in contrast to a game visit along with a spring trip to Gainesville, the fact that a) he hasn’t committed to UF yet, and b) the Vols are so deeply involved speaks volumes. Landing either of these superstar prospects out of Florida would be a major coup for the Vols, an step up even from landing 4-star OLB Morven Joseph over the Gators and Florida State in the 2020 class.
With the March commitment of RB Jaylen Wright from Durham, NC, the Vols still have a desire to land one more RB in the class. And while the Vols are very much in it for bigtime RBs like Cody Brown and Lovasea Carroll, Tennessee has made a big recent move for Tiyon Evans, the #1 JUCO RB in the country. Originally from Hartsville, SC, Evans is thought by some (mainly Gamecock fans) to be a shoe-in to land in Columbia now that he has an offer from his hometown school. However, new Tennessee RB Coach Jay Graham has the Vols very much in play here. With relationships in Carolina after a stint as the RB Coach for Steve Spurrier in Columbia as well as his overall reputation as a recruiter, Graham has developed a close bond with Evans that will have the Vols in play until the end. Oh, guess who else is helping tag team with Graham in this recruitment…none other than Joe Osovet, who’s using his experience as a former JUCO Head Coach to relate to Evans.
Lastly, a random note to tuck away: Although many consider Penn State (where he’s a legacy) and Clemson to be the favorites for 5-star OL Nolan Rucci, the Vols made a huge impression when he visited Knoxville in March. Importantly, along with being a first round NFL draft pick, etc, Rucci wants to be an aerospace engineer. Vols fans of course know the story and career of all time great QB Josh Dobbs and his success in Tennessee’s aerospace engineering program. As we made the case over a year ago for Rick Barnes’s program, it seems like a no-brainer to leverage Dobbs’ experience as the highest profile athlete on campus who also excelled in this very specific program that Rucci would be a part of. Hopefully that’s a massive part of the sell for Pruitt and Tennessee and hopefully it resonates with the kind of franchise OT that not only would be a cornerstone for the Vols’ 2021 class but also the next generation of future NFL OL that Pruitt and OL Coach Will Friend have brought into the program.