As the countdown to National Signing Day melts from being measured by days to hours and top targets fall off the board, the Tennessee Volunteers gambled Monday night on a player with a lot of upside and more than one "if."
Dillon (S.C.) three-star running back Jabo Lee -- the No. 13-rated all-purpose back in the nation according to 247Sports -- decommitted from East Carolina and pledged to Tennessee late Monday night, days after receiving a firm offer from UT. The commitment gives the Vols and new head coach Butch Jones the elusive running back they've searched for diligently since taking over for coach Derek Dooley.
After Jay Graham struck out on five-stars Derrick Henry [Alabama] and Derrick Green [Michigan] while watching interested prospects like Taurean Folston, A.J. Turman and others commit elsewhere, the Vols were left scrambling for a back. That need was elevated following the departure of Quenshaun Watson from the team this offseason.
One by one, however, those targets fell off the board. Peyton Barber never seemed interested in UT and eventually flipped from Ole Miss to Auburn. JoJo Kemp wasn't even interested in visiting the Vols before committing to Kentucky. Finally, UT's last, best hope -- and perhaps the guy who emerged as the new staff's top target -- Johnathan Ford seemed primed to flip from Vanderbilt to Tennessee after visiting Knoxville. But Auburn offered the New Hope, Ala., prospect, and though he hasn't made a final decision, all signs point to him staying in-state.
That left UT to scour the rest and determine whether or not to offer players like Marquez Grayson, Aregeros Turner and Lee. They settled on Lee, the S.C., product who has electrifying speed and was one of Graham's top targets way back before last season started. Lee wasn't as highly pursued by BCS schools for several reasons once the season started, and the Vols were one of those teams who simply had several guys higher on the board. Personally, I remember somewhere around last March or April watching this film and thinking Lee was destined to be one of the top runners in the nation. It still wows me today. I guess it goes to show why I'm not a great talent evaluator.
But Lee had two major strikes against him, causing schools like South Carolina, Virginia Tech, Clemson and UT -- schools who offered him early -- to back out. First of all, he's probably not an every-down back, measuring in at around 5-feet-8 and 175 pounds -- and that may be generous. Though he has sub-4.5 speed, there were questions about whether or not he was durable enough to withstand the rigors of a major conference.Also, his speed isn't elite for someone his size.
Then came the "no-thanks" whammy -- his transcript. Lee's grades were questionable at best heading into his junior year. Even though he had a great last semester, he is not a slam-dunk to qualify for the Vols. The bottom line is, at this point, UT has the space to gamble and likes his upside at this stage of the recruiting game if he can get into school.
There are times in recruiting [and Lord knows I'm guilty of it sometimes] where fans or coaches try to boost up a commitment with paper attributes or accomplishments. But Graham likes Lee, and he really was a strong target of the former coaching staff before the Vols became major players for some of the top backs in the nation. But he is in no way, shape or form a bad gamble at this point. If he doesn't qualify, we aren't filling up, anyway. If he does make it in, we desperately need runners and -- at worst -- he is another Watson scat-back type who has a role in this offense.
Is Lee the cornerstone running back we were hoping for in this class? Absolutely not. Is he worth a scholarship? Definitely. I'm excited about this pick-up at this juncture, and though it probably foreshadows Ford's selection of Auburn -- a crucial blow to this class -- it isn't a bad consolation prize. According to 247 Sports, the industry's top evaluator of talent, Lee is UT's sixth-highest rated commit currently.
If he qualifies, it's probably a steal. If he doesn't, oh well. It's nice to finally have a running back in the fold with fewer than 48 hours until National Signing Day.