There are several story lines worth watching in the world of Tennessee recruiting over the next few weeks as the Vols try to close out the season with success on the field and in the prospect rankings.
Perhaps the two aren't mutually exclusive.
Players want to see program improvement, and UT needs to show that it is taking steps even with the injuries or teams will continue negative recruiting against them. That could hurt the Vols with some players they're trying to close on ... as well as a few committed guys. While Derek Dooley has never had a decommitment that he recruited and didn't initiate a parting of ways, UT will have to fight to hang onto a few commitments down the stretch.
While I think they will -- thanks to Dooley's rigorous, relationship-oriented process of targeting, offering and securing players -- it won't be without a fight from other programs. Here are the pledges who UT can't sleep on.
- Damien Jacobs. The JUCO DT is perhaps one of the three or four most important commitments so far, and he has drawn interest from Texas A&M, Florida, South Florida and others. While he is important in his own right, he is also the key to a couple other DLs, which we'll discuss in a moment. A&M gave Jacobs something to think about on his visit a few weeks ago, and he's at least listening. Perhaps his relationship with Terry Joseph will win out in the end, but we've seen this before with DTs [see J.C. Copeland, Edwin Herbert] so it's worth watching.
LaDarrell McNeil. The Vols' big-hitting safety from Dallas said this week that he was going to visit Texas Tech. While you wouldn't think UT would have to worry about the Red Raiders, they just came off a huge upset of Oklahoma and are coached by an old nemesis Tommy Tuberville. You always have to worry about Tubs recruiting against you. Just ask the Vols ... do Carnell Williams, Ronnie Brown, Michael Goggins ring a bell? Also, Rivals Big 12 recruiter of the year Robert Prunty is on them, so things could get dicey.
Otha Peters. Another of UT's huge commitments, the four-star linebacker said this week that he'll visit Texas A&M, Nebraska and LSU. It has long been thought if the homestate Tigers come calling, things may get thick for the Vols, but he told Volquest yesterday that he's 90 percent committed, and once his mother drove up and liked Knoxville, he'd be 100 percent. So, while it appears UT has the upper hand on this commitment, there will still be some nail-biting for this important commit. He cites his relationship with Joseph, so a visit may calm the waters.
- Dalton Santos. He has now visited and said Knoxville feels like home. But it isn't home. The Van, Texas, native is from really close to A&M, and the Aggies won't stop recruiting him. Also, Florida is ramping up the interest, but again, I don't see Santos going anywhere. He and Danny O'Brien have developed a friendship and both appear solid.
Here's storyline #2 for which to watch: How long has it been since Tennessee got a commendable defensive line haul? The short answer is FOREVER. Now, the Vols already have four important DL commits with Jacobs, O'Brien, Trent Taylor and LaTroy Lewis, and they feel pretty good about two more.
The Mississippi JUCO trio of Jacobs, DE teammate Denico Autry and DE/DT Darrington Sentimore, who plays for another team but has built a relationship with the teammates, have mentioned a few times they'd like to play together. Sentimore is a former Alabama player who fell out of Nick Saban's good graces, but he is dominating the JUCO ranks. Autry is perhaps the top JUCO DE in the country and an immediate-impact player.
Here's another thing -- Autry and Jacobs are supposed to visit this weekend for the South Carolina game. Knock Autry's socks off, get a commitment, solidify Jacobs and gain the upper hand on Sentimore all in one weekend. If UT can secure those two and keep Jacobs, wow, a turnaround may come quicker than we think.
Of course, Mississippi State, Texas A&M [sound familiar], and Florida are also pursuing the trio.
Finally, if the Vols can close the deal, I believe they're going to have a great shot at securing another potential every-down back in Florence, Ala., ATH Beniquez Brown.
Rivals missed the boat on this kid, rating him a three-star. 247 Sports has him as a four-star and the 14th overall back in the class. Alabama was recruiting him as a safety, but he told the Times Daily that he has eliminated the Tide. Though he grew up an Auburn fan, the Tigers are not in his top three.
Here's the deal: Brown visits UT this weekend and said that he'll probably make a commitment after the visit. He is down to the Vols, Florida and Mississippi State. He already has visited Gainesville, and UF is clearly in the picture, but he wants to play immediately. While he noted those three schools give him that opportunity, UT is wide-open at running back, and he probably likes that.
If we impress him this weekend, we'll be fresh on the 6-foot-2, 215-pound star's mind. Brown is big. He is fast. His film is incredible. It's really, really difficult to pull a kid from Alabama with Tide and Tigers offers, but UT has the chance to. And he would round out a nice RB class joinin Imani Cross and Alden Hill.
Onto some tidbits...
- There is simply nothing at all to verify this, but I'm just throwing it out there -- there are rumors circulating on two different message boards that Alton "Pig" Howard is a silent commit to the Vols. The speedy Orlando athlete would fill a huge need for Tennessee, and hopefully, UT will get him. He has offers from the Gators, UCF, Louisville, West Virginia, Notre Dame, Miami, South Carolina, Nebraska, Ohio State and many, many more. The hometown Knights are thought to be the top compeition.
- VQ's Paul Fortenberry discusses who could potentially be early enrollees and who definitely will be in this week's "Inside the Fort" feature.
- Within the above feature is a tidbit of information that will be notable to some of the Middle Tennessee fans. Former Giles County quarterback Bo Wallace, who won a state championship at the Pulaski school and had a remarkable senior year, is now Jacobs' and Autry's teammate in Scooba. He left Arkansas State after one year and is putting up ridiculous JUCO numbers, completing 67 percent of his passes for 32 TDs and 10 interceptions to go along with 2,967 yards. He is visiting Knoxville this weekend, and while it likely wouldn't be anything besides a preferred walk-on, he's a possibility to wind up in orange. Wallace has great size and speed.
- Volquest and 247 Sports caught up with one 2013 linebacker who visited Knoxville for the LSU game and walked away loving it. Here is 247's story and the one from Rivals on 6-4, 230-pound Trotwood, Ohio, OLB Mike McCray.
- Another 2013 LB who really likes the Vols and has now visited tice is Tim Kimbrough of Warren Central HS in Indianapolis. He is a Future 247 player and has UT high on his list after visiting for the LSU game. UT hasn't offered yet but one could be coming soon for the 6-1, 215-pounder. He already has offers from Cincinnati, North Carolina and Purdue. Here's Ryan Callahan's story.
- The Vols and quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw is trying to recruit four-star safety Jordan Diggs of Island Coast HS in Cape Coral, Fla. Diggs will visit UT for the MTSU game and is also considering South Carolina, Nebraska, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Michigan State.
- UT moved up to 14th in 247's latest recruiting rankings.