Upgrading Talent and the 2014 Tennessee Vols Recruiting Class

One of the few players to exceed expectations will be joined by a few with much higher expectations. - Al Messerschmidt

The 2014 recruiting class looks like it will upgrade the talent in Knoxville. By how much? We take a look position-by-position.

The 2014 recruiting class is signed, sealed, and at least partially delivered. After a few lean recruiting years, a huge class with some star power is a welcome sight in Big Orange Country. But how much did it really upgrade the talent? It's hard to tell right now, of course, because we haven't seen a single college snap--even a practice snap--from any of the 2014 guys. But we can compare their recruiting rankings to those of last year's key contributors. And so we will do.

All ratings from 247 composite unless otherwise noted.

QUARTERBACK:

2013 contributors: Justin Worley (JR), .8575 (three stars); Joshua Dobbs (FR), .9276 (four stars)

2014 signees: none.

Takeaway: With a bunch of unknowns and a senior with limited upside, it might've been nice for the Vols to add another name to the mix at quarterback, but other needs were more pressing. Any opportunity to upgrade the quarterback position will have to wait until 2015.

RUNNING BACK:

2013 contributors: Rajion Neal (SR), .9002 (four stars); Marlin Lane (JR), .9272 (four stars)

2014 signees: Jalen Hurd, .9793 (four stars); Derrell Scott, .9408 (four stars); Treyvon Paulk, .8737 (three stars)

Takeaway: It can be easy to forget that Neal, who showed flashes but never became a consistent focal point of the offense, was a borderline four-star, but he was. So was Lane, who has struggled with injuries in his three years at UT. On the surface, it looks like Tennessee is just replacing two four-stars with two more four-stars. But a closer look tells another story. Neal was a couple tenths of a point away from a three-star rating (if we read this on a more natural 100-point scale instead of the presented one-point scale). Hurd is a couple tenths from a five-star. Scott, the 2nd back in the class, is rated higher than the best back on the 2013 roster. At this point, it's hard to call this anything but an upgrade in talent. And coupled with the talent upgrade is an underrated upgrade in depth. Tennessee had just two backs who took important snaps last season. It's obviously hard to tell where future important snaps will go, but the Vols signed three backs in this class alone.

RECEIVER:

2013 contributors: Marquez North (FR), .9574 (four stars); Josh Smith (FR), .8210 (three stars); Pig Howard (SO), .9063 (four stars); Jason Croom (FR), .9122 (four stars); Devrin Young (JR), .8467 (three stars); Jonathan Johnson (SO), .8400 (three stars)

2014 signees: Josh Malone, .9818 (four stars); Von Pearson, .9292 (four stars); Vic Wharton, .8693 (three stars); Neiko Creamer, .8584 (three stars)

Takeaway: Three contributors last year were four-stars, led by star freshman Marquez North, so this year's receiver class may not look like much of an upgrade. That may be a bit surprising to anyone who has already forgotten what appeared in 2012 to be one of the best classes Tennessee had ever signed at receiver, with four-stars Pig Howard, Jason Croom, and Drae Bowles, and five-star Cordarrelle Patterson. But CP was gone by 2013, and the rest of the class has been remarkably underwhelming for one of the easier positions to evaluate. The production just didn't match the ratings, and the production that was there came in largest part from 2013 recruit Marquez North.

But even while the remaining 2012 recruits sport a number of stars, Josh Malone--the highest-rated enrollee in the 2014 class--and Von Pearson are still rated as talent upgrades over the current #1 and #2 receivers on campus. This class isn't as deep as 2012 looked to be, but the top end talent should be an upgrade. The other two in the class are both legacies who can play multiple positions.

TIGHT END:

2013 contributors: Brendan Downs (JR), .8610 (three stars); A.J. Branisel, .8503 (three stars)

2014 signees: Daniel Helm, .9182 (four stars); Ethan Wolf, .8890 (three stars)

Takeaway: This one's simple enough. The second tight end in this year's class is higher-rated than anyone Tennessee had on campus at the position last year. Not to mention that enrolling two tight ends early should go a long way to shoring up Tennessee's depth issues at the position.

OFFENSIVE LINE:

2013 contributors: Antonio Richardson (JR), .9564 (four stars); Ja'Wuan James (SR), .9845 (five stars); Alex Bullard (SR), .9002 (four stars); James Stone (SR), .9056 (four stars); Zach Fulton (SR), .8537 (three stars).

2014 signees: Dontavius Blair, .9099 (four stars); Jashon Robertson, .8625 (three stars); Coleman Thomas, .8584 (three stars); Ray Raulerson, .8472 (three stars).

Takeaway: It's not hard to see why expectations were so high for the 2013 offensive line. Five players with at least three years in the program and with an average of four stars each out of high school. On paper, the 2014 class doesn't come close, although it does plug an immediate hole with JUCO Dontavius Blair. The Vols will have to hope that Robertson, Raulerson, and Thomas are Fulton-esque triumphs of evaluation.

DEFENSIVE LINE:

2013 contributors: Daniel McCullers (SR), .8785 (three stars); Daniel Hood (SR), .8377 (three stars), Jacques Smith (SR), .9439 (four stars); Marlon Walls (SR), .9222 (four stars); Corey Miller (SR), .9701 (four stars).

2014 signees: Charles Mosley, .8948 (four stars), Michael Sawyers, .8830 (three stars), Dimarya Mixon, .8618 (three stars); Owen Williams, .8443 (three stars); Dewayne Hendrix, .9428 (four stars); Derek Barnett, .9164 (four stars); Joe Henderson, .8816 (three stars).

Takeaway: The Vols have had trouble recruiting defensive tackles for the better part of a decade, and they made do with a converted three-star tight end and a three-star JUCO there last year. This recruiting class appears to bring a talent upgrade, but only a slight one. Mosley gives the Vols a four-star tackle, and Sawyers is also rated ahead of either McCullers or Hood. Mixon and Williams are not projected as top end talents by the recruiting services, but the 3rd and 4th tackles in Tennessee's class--both early enrollees, one a JUCO--are vital at an extremely thin position being hit hard by graduation.

At end, the 2013 Vols had what was expected to be plenty of talent, with three four-stars making up the primary rotation. Jacques Smith never lived up to his hype, and neither did Corey Miller, but they were not untalented. But neither will the 2014 class. It's hard to call this class a talent upgrade given the (mostly squandered) talent on campus last season, but it's hard to complain when all three defensive ends are rated four-stars by 247 and two of them are consensus four-stars.

LINEBACKER:

2013 contributors: A.J. Johnson (JR), .9371 (four stars); Brent Brewer (SR), .8556 (three stars); Dontavis Sapp, .7778 (two stars)

2014 signees: Gavin Bryant, .8976 (four stars); Jakob Johnson, .8582 (three stars); Dillon Bates, .9536 (four stars); Chris Weatherd, .8969 (four stars); Elliott Berry, .8528 (three stars)

Takeaway: Last year's Vols had A.J. Johnson and not much else at linebacker, although Dontavis Sapp--a two-star recruit who would've been a walk-on in better years--should be noted for his work in becoming one of Tennessee's most-used defenders by his senior year. This year Tennessee will see three four-star backers come in, plus one German who Vols fans hope is underrated due to his late arrival stateside. Two of the four-stars are on the low end of the range, but Dillon Bates is rated higher than A.J. Johnson was, and merely having three four-stars in one class is a vast improvement over what the Vols have fielded recently. A clear upgrade. And we haven't even mentioned the Berry.

DEFENSIVE BACK:

2013 contributors: Brian Randolph (JR), .8590 (three stars); LaDarrell McNeil, .9554 (four stars); Byron Moore, .9207 (four stars); Cameron Sutton (FR), .8625 (three stars); Justin Coleman (JR), .8801 (three stars); Jaron Toney (JR) (not rated)

2014 signees: Todd Kelly Jr., .9686 (four stars); Cortez McDowell, .9235 (four stars); RaShaan Gaulden, .8773 (three stars); Evan Berry, .8934 (four stars); D'Andre Payne, .8993 (four stars); Emmanuel Moseley, .8464 (three stars)

Takeaway: It looks like Tennessee is trying to recruit over two four-stars and a bunch of nothing, but DB is one position where the Vols have had some underrated recruits shine. Brian Randolph has outperformed his modest rating, and if Randolph outperformed his, we need a whole new word to describe Cam Sutton's freshman performance relative to expectations out of high school.

That said, the Vols' 2014 class has two four-star safeties who can beat the ratings one-two punch of McNeil and Moore, and a pair of four-star corners and a three-star nickel appears to be an upgrade over a pair of three-star corners and a walk-on nickel. Just don't expect that to mean Sutton loses his job any time soon. But Coleman and Toney might.

OVERALL:

Going position by position really underscores the strides the Vols have made with just one recruiting class. The 2013 starting roster represents the best of the last four years of recruiting, and the 2014 class offers clear talent upgrades at running back, receiver, tight end, linebacker, and defensive back. The defensive line is very nearly a wash, although with an improvement in sheer numbers, and only on the offensive line (and quarterback, where the Vols bring in no freshmen) does Tennessee not at least match the talent leading the 2013 team.

There's no guarantee that the 2014 class will pan out. In fact, it's almost certain that highly rated members of the class will underperform their expectations. That's life, and that's recruiting. And there's certainly no guarantee that those who do pan out will do so this fall. Development is not always quick. That's also life.

But on paper, Tennessee's 2014 recruiting class clearly outperforms the best remaining from the Vols' last four classes. And when you take into account how many times you, in reading this article, thought "that guy was a four-star? He sure didn't live up to the hype," there's the possibility that the difference on the field could be even bigger.

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