Tennessee Recruiting: UT's Defensive Big Board

Jared Wickerham

With time running out in this recruiting season and National Signing Day less than a month away, Rocky Top Talk attempts to take a look at the Vols' remaining defensive targets.

Tons of information here in yesterday's Offensive Big Board with links to many stories with the latest news and information on where the Vols currently stand with some of their top targets.

Tennessee's forgettable football season in 2012 can be placed almost squarely on the shoulders of the worst defense in school history.

While getting rid of Derek Dooley and one-and-done defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri is a good start to improving, there's almost no way the myriad issues on that side of the football can be fixed in one year. But new Vols head coach Butch Jones and defensive coordinator John Jancek are scouring the nation, looking for the top prospects and trying to sell immediate playing time to anybody who will listen.

The question is: Will they listen?

There are some HUGE names on the list of remaining prospects interested in Tennessee. Do the Vols lead for any of them? It depends on who you talk to, but one thing is certain: UT needs some difference-makers all over the field, and especially on defense. Let's take a look at the players currently on the big board leading up to National Signing Day.

[Click on player name to see 247 Sports profile]

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN

Jason Carr 6-6, 270 Memphis, TN SOFT TENNESSEE COMMIT
Joe Sanders 6-5, 270 LaGrange, GA SOFT TENNESSEE COMMIT
Carl Lawson 6-3, 245 Alpharetta, GA AUBURN COMMIT
Jaylen Miller 6-3, 255 Gaffney, SC
Keith Bryant 6-2, 302 Delray Beach, FL
Davin Bellamy 6-5, 235 Atlanta, GA FLORIDA STATE COMMIT
Rod Crayton 6-1, 310 Dadeville, AL
Dee Liner 6-3, 277 Muscle Shoals, AL

Much like Tennessee's running back recruiting situation, the defensive line recruiting is "go big or go home." The Vols are really only players for four guys. It is also ESSENTIAL that Tennessee holds off Ole Miss and Alabama to keep Carr's commitment.

Though Carr visited Knoxville this past weekend and reports were good, he hasn't spoken to Tennessee media, which is a concerning development. Carr has the ability to play immediately. His brother currently attends UT. As for Sanders, he has visited Washington and is expected to visit Arkansas, and that's one to watch from a grades standpoint. The Vols would love to have him, but it's unclear whether or not he will qualify. That could be a decommitment waiting to happen. Chauntez Jackson committed to Dooley as a tight end, but it looked more like he would have been a defensive end for Butch Jones -- but that ship sailed when Jackson swapped orange for Houston red.

The biggest name on UT's recruiting list at defensive line and, really, anywhere is five-star defensive end Carl Lawson. The current Auburn commit visited Clemson last weekend and enjoyed it. He also has some interest in Ole Miss and is expected to see Auburn again after it fired its entire coaching staff. But UT has some momentum here, and the Vols are on Lawson's docket for a visit this weekend. What a major coup it would be for Jones to secure a commitment from Lawson -- who is the No. 2 overall player according to Rivals and ESPN.

Lawson's dad said this week that the decision won't go all the way till National Signing Day, and if that's the case, Tennessee may have a good chance. A GREAT visit this weekend is essential.

Another visitor to watch this weekend is Miller, who was offered by this staff after it was made known that the Vols were going back to a 4-3. Miller is a 4-3 defensive end all the way, and he canceled his Wake Forest visit to see Knoxville. It's not out of the realm of possibility that the Gaffney product could choose Tennessee over Maryland, Georgia Tech, Wake, and others this weekend. He seems very excited by UT's interest, and he's a nice looking prospect who had early offers from Florida and LSU -- both schools have filled up at his position.

Bryant is expected to visit Knoxville, but that's going to be an awfully hard pull. UT has had a lot of luck with Miami commits lately, but Bryant appears poised to sign with Florida State or Miami. The 'Noles lead, but UT will try to sell him on immediate playing time when he visits. Crayton's recruitment has been as quiet as anybody's, and the kid simply doesn't do interviews. There isn't a UT visit scheduled that I know of, and Penn State may be one to watch.

As for Bellamy, Tennessee really liked where it was with him a week ago when his former lead recruiter Dameyune Craig left FSU for Auburn. But he visited Tallahassee and new DL coach Sal Sunseri this weekend and things seem to have solidified there. Still, the Vols will host Bellamy this weekend and try to make him remember why we were his early favorite.

Let's get this out of the way -- Liner ain't coming to Tennessee. He decommitted from Auburn, and Alabama is the only choice there. We're trying, but it will be futile. Rich get richer. In another note about an Alabama prospect, Hazel Green's Parker Cothren has received a bunch of SEC interest in the past couple of weeks, including an offer from in-state Auburn, but he will stick with Penn State.

LINEBACKERS

Corey Vereen 6-2, 235 West Orange, FL TENNESSEE COMMIT
Jermaine Grace 6-1, 195 Hollywood, FL
E.J. Levenberry 6-3, 227 Woodbridge, VA FLORIDA STATE COMMIT
Jonathan Walton 6-1, 227 Daphne, AL
Zach Cunningham 6-4, 196 Pinson, AL
Skai Moore 6-3, 215 Fort Lauderdale, FL
Reuben Foster 6-1, 240 Auburn, AL
Trey Johnson 6-2, 218 Lawrenceville, GA OHIO STATE COMMIT

Once a position that Tennessee had its fair share of commits, Jones parted ways with three former Vols pledges once he arrived to replace Derek Dooley. Dominic Zanca went to Duke, Zach Barnes is now considering Indiana, Furman and Southern Miss, and Colton Goeas committed to Kansas. That should tell you that most of those kids likely weren't SEC material, anyway.

Also, JUCO defensive end/linebacker De'Vondre Campbell -- whom UT would loved to have kept -- couldn't make the grades for the SEC and has pledged to Kansas State.

So, where does that leave UT? With already-enrolled Vereen the only commit at a major position of need, the answer is "Not in a good place." The Vols are really trying with Grace, who visited this past weekend, but even though Tennessee impressed him, he appears a near lock to stay in-state and sign with the Miami Hurricanes.

The Vols benefited from Auburn's mass overhaul of coaches early by plucking defensive back commitment Lemond Johnson, but the turnover is hurting Tennessee now with a pair of linebackers. Zach Cunningham is almost a lock to AU, even though UT desperately wants him. There isn't a lot of traffic in either direction right now. And it's interesting to see what happens with Walton, a former Penn State commitment who backed out of his pledge with the Nittany Lions after visiting UT this past weekend. Walton has an official visit scheduled with Auburn and South Carolina -- both of whom have offered.

Walton didn't seem to be paying UT lip service this past weekend, speaking highly of the new coaches after his visit. But you always have to think a kid from South Alabama is going to hang in-state, and South Carolina has been tough to beat on the recruiting trail lately, too.

The Vols are trying to set up a visit with former Rutgers commit Skai Moore, and that would be a nice late haul for UT. It'll be interesting to see what -- if anything -- happens there. Foster and Johnson -- both former AU commits -- would be massive defensive pulls that could make a class, but the chances of either of them coming to Tennessee are probably less than 5%. We'll keep trying; they'll keep telling us no.

But an intriguing possibility is Levenberry, who appears to be UT's top remaining linebacker target. EJ really liked Tennessee when he was a junior, but something happened with Dooley and Sunseri that completely made him turn off his love for the Vols. He became one of the nation's top-recruited LBs and committed to Florida State. Now that Sunseri is there [though he isn't Levenberry's position coach] and FSU has replaced a bunch of coaches, the Vols have tried desperately to get Levenberry to listen to new LBs coach Tommy Thigpen. That finally appears to be paying off as it looks like Levenberry could visit Knoxville on Jan. 25.

Getting Levenberry would be one of the top three realistic coups this staff could pull off behind securing a pledge from Lawson or five-star defensive back Vonn Bell.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Jalen Reeves-Maybin 6-1, 200 Clarksville, TN TENNESSEE COMMIT
Lemond Johnson 5-11, 190 Cooper City, FL TENNESSEE COMMIT
Riyahd Jones 6-0, 186 Columbus, GA TENNESSEE COMMIT
Cameron Sutton 6-0, 175 Jonesboro, GA SOFT TENNESSEE COMMIT
Malik Foreman 5-10, 170 Kingsport TN TENNESSEE COMMIT
Vonn Bell 6-1, 190 Rossville, GA
Jahmere Irvin-Sills 5-10, 170 Elkton, MD
Jalen Ramsey 6-0, 190 Brentwood, TN SOUTHERN CAL COMMIT

The Vols already have three enrolled defensive backs with safety Reeves-Maybin, hybrid Johnson and cornerback Jones. That's good, too, considering that was easily the worst position on a bad Vols team last year.

Also, just to clear anything up: Ramsey is NOT coming to UT. He won't even officially visit UT, and will probably flip from Southern Cal to Florida. As much trash as that kid has talked about Tennessee, this doesn't matter to me in the least. So, let's get to the real news.

Things are about to get really interesting if Sutton decommits and goes to Auburn. Once thought to be solid, Sutton -- who I think is extremely underrated -- visited the Plains last weekend and said that the Tigers had a good shot at flipping him. If he does indeed jump ship, it will be interesting to see if the Vols turn back up the heat on Irvin-Sills or if they just leave all their eggs in the Bell basket. With the flip of Foreman from Vanderbilt, UT kind of turned down the pressure cooker on recruiting Irvin-Sills, who is still an extremely good prospect who currently favors Mississippi State. Not sure whether or not UT could get seriously back in that one.

But here's the guy everyone is hoping for/worried about: Vonn Bell.

The life-long Vols fan is considered a heavy lean to Alabama, and it has even been rumored this week that he is silently committed to Nick Saban. Bell's other finalist besides UT and UA is Ohio State, where he visited this past weekend and gave high marks. Still, the Vols hold Bell's final visit, and all UT fans are hoping the prospect holds a special place in his heart for his homestate school [he lives in Chattanooga but goes to school in Georgia] and is open to Jones flipping him.

Willie Martinez visited with Bell this week and told the prospect that Tennessee would hold a "Vonn Bell Day" while he was on campus. It truly looks like Tennessee will pull off all the stops for his pledge, but is it too late? Bell knows that Alabama and Saban can get him to the NFL. He knows that they're winning championships. And he believes he's got a spot on their latest top-ranked class.

But where is his heart? Hopefully, he'll follow it home to Knoxville.

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