The recruiting momentum in Knoxville is as crazy this early as it has ever been at the University of Tennessee -- and that's saying something. Not even during the years when Phillip Fulmer was hauling in top-5 recruiting classes year after year did UT experience the resurgence in recruiting that it is right now.
On Thursday morning, that momentum surged another notch when five-star running back Jalen Hurd of Hendersonville (Tenn.) Beech High School decided to end the process early and stay home to play for the Vols. Hurd had been coveted by basically all of the nation's top teams but had suggested his top two were Ohio State and Florida. Tennessee had elevated itself into the picture with new coach Butch Jones, but there were no direct indications from the star runner that he'd planned on committing to anyone this early.
However during his first visit to UT on Feb. 16, he connected with coaches and noted to 247 national writer Gerry Hamilton that Jones was a key part of why he committed this early.
After rumors heated up on message boards Wednesday night, Hurd came from nowhere to commit to the Big Orange on Thursday morning, sending Tennessee fans into a frenzy. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound running back is the No. 10 overall player in the nation according to 247 Sports as well as the second-ranked running back in the nation. Rivals has him as a high four-star and the 15th-rated overall player in the country. Scout believes he's the seventh-best running back in the nation.
One thing is clear: Hurd was a must-get and the top-rated player perhaps on the Vols' entire recruiting board.
Hurd had visited Tennessee a couple of times recently after Jones obviously made him a priority as soon as he took the UT job. On the night that new Vols running backs coach Robert Gillespie replaced Jay Graham, his first call was to Hurd. Now, UT has its running back to build the future around -- a feat that Graham failed to close on during his two recruiting cycles at his alma mater.
There is no way to overstate this commitment for the long-dormant Vols -- from a public relations standpoint and, mainly, from a need standpoint. Tennessee has struggled for years at the running back position, and not having an elite runner has really hurt UT through the rigors of the SEC season. Now, they have a monster force at the position who is one of the most powerful backs in the country. He set a state record as a junior with 3,357 rushing yards and 43 touchdowns. In the state championship game, he also set a record with 34 carries for 394 yards and seven touchdowns.
The bond established between Hurd and fellow national recruit Todd Kelly Jr. was also a huge reason these elite prospects are jumping on board early. TKJr. pledged to UT last Sunday and, along with in-state star Vic Wharton, has been recruiting the top players in the state to Knoxville. Kelly and Hurd had built a strong bond the past few weeks, and Hurd inevitably followed his friend to UT.
Hurd said he chose UT over Ohio State, Florida and Vanderbilt. He also had offers from Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Stanford, Notre Dame, Michigan, Ole Miss, North Carolina, Florida State and many more. Though some schools believe Hurd's future is elsewhere besides running back -- such as wide receiver or linebacker -- there is no doubt where the Vols plan on using him. Hurd is going to be the elite power back UT has been missing for some time.
His straight-up, bulldozing running style makes him look even more imposing on the field, but even with that uncharacteristic trait, he has been almost impossible to stop on the high school level. Tennessee hopes he's equally as tough to stop in orange.
With commitments from TKJr. and Hurd, the Vols have secured the top two players in the state before the calendar flips to spring.That's unprecedented, actually. Fulmer was known during his run of top-10 classes of being a great "closer." Even then, UT would get off to a slow start and pile on the stars toward the end of the recruiting cycle. Lane Kiffin's one impressive [on paper] class was the same.
Not Jones' first full class. He already has pledges from four-stars Kelly and Wharton and five-star Hurd, to go along with three-star offensive lineman Coleman Thomas of Virginia and three-star wide receiver/athlete Neiko Creamer of Delaware. Now, the challenge is going to be to keep all these commitments secure in what could possibly be a difficult first year on the football field for a Tennessee team with some talent but a tough schedule and a lot of holes. The best news about that is by building a class of in-state players and legacies, historically, those guys stick a lot better than somebody without ties to the program.
The only other "national" recruit currently in the state is wide receiver Josh Malone, who is considered by some to be a UT lean, and he's being pressed by the new UT pledges to jump on the wagon as well. Hurd has been bombarded on Twitter this week by players who have formed the @UTLegendClass handle on Twitter. Basically, that comprises recruits Kelly and Wharton and rising Vols senior Byron Moore. Those guys have been tweeting at prospective student-athletes and trying to coax them into orange.
This is a phenomenal start heading into the biggest recruiting weekend in recent memory for UT where some 70-plus prospects are expected to be on campus including some of the nation's most talented players.
Most importantly for this commitment, the Vols were finally able to secure an elite running back -- something it hasn't done since Bryce Brown signed with Kiffin and stuck around for only one season. On the heels of finishing in second place for stars such as Derrick Green, Derrick Henry and Johnathan Ford, UT changes running backs coach and it picks up the most important player to pledge to the Vols in a long, long time.
Jones said two days ago that this is a program waking up. With commitments like Kelly and now Hurd, maybe it's time we all should start believing how hot the Vols are on the recruiting trail, and just how that could translate to us possibly -- finally -- crawling out of a decade-long slumber.