What Vols targets are deciding on Signing Day: none known.
The skill positions should be open and shut. The returning cast of characters should be familiar enough, as it's almost identical to last year's offense, minus one Rajion Neal.
At quarterback, there's no help on the way. Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman seem like known quantities at this point, so the coaches have to be hoping that either Josh Dobbs or Riley Ferguson can leap forward and take control. Tennessee has numerous targets at the position in the 2015 class, but anyone the Vols sign out of high school will be a true freshman when Worley graduates, so a breakthrough from Dobbs or Ferguson will be key.
Running back, on the other hand, will see the Vols get a huge infusion of talent. Only senior Marlin Lane and little-used Alden Hill remain among last year's scholarship backs (although Deanthonie Summerhill and Justus Pickett are walk-ons you may know), so Tennessee needed help in the worst way. There was only one proven back on campus, and he's had problems with injuries and will graduate after this season. The Vols coaching staff knew this was a key position to recruit, and they knocked it out of the park.
Five-star freshman Jalen Hurd, a 6'3", 230-pound back with offers from everybody, is already on campus. Hurd is a big, powerful back also known for his top-end speed and should immediately compete for carries. But the Vols also expect to sign two more running backs on Wednesday: four-star Derrell Scott and three-star Treyvon Paulk. Scott is a recent commit who we profiled last week when he chose Tennessee over South Carolina. Standing just 5'11" and 180 pounds, Scott is a smaller back known for his quickness, elusiveness, and vision. But despite not coming to campus for spring practice, Scott expects to compete with Hurd and Lane for playing time as a true freshman, and the long-term ideal is for he and Hurd to complement each other and provide the Vols with a power back and a quicker back.
Paulk, a 5'9", 200-pound runner, is not expected to contribute as a true freshman after missing his senior season of high school with a knee injury. Paulk committed to Tennessee in the spring of last year, and while he didn't have a chance to impress the recruiting services with a strong senior year, the Vols hope that a redshirt year will turn him back into the fast and elusive back that drew their eye in the first place.
The returners at receiver should look familiar. It's essentially the same cast of characters from 2013, which wasn't able to generate much production outside of Marquez North, the hyper-talented rising sophomore. The Vols will likely still use Pig Howard in the slot and however else they can and will hope that Jason Croom can turn into the matchup nightmare that his 6'5" frame promised. It's worth keeping an eye here on Ryan Jenkins, a former four-star recruit who chose the Vols over Clemson before redshirting with a injury that nagged through his true freshman season. Jenkins is small and quick and was expected to provide the Vols with some depth in the slot.
But, while there may be some promise already on campus, the production last season proved that Tennessee needed help, and they will get it. JUCO Von Pearson, a relative unknown when he committed to Tennessee in mid-October who blew up into a consensus four-star by the end of the season, is already on campus and should contribute immediately. So is Josh Malone, an elite prospect out of high school who chose the Vols in December over offers from pretty much everyone. Malone and Pearson are similar in size, at about 6'3" and just under 200 pounds, and both expect to contribute immediately on the outside, with Pearson expected to be slightly quicker and Malone more of a downfield threat.
Overlooked in the excitement of a pair of highly-rated receivers with high expectations is Neiko Creamer, a 6'3", 230-pound three-star athlete who is also already on campus. Creamer, the son of Vols DB Andre Creamer, played receiver in high school but could be converted to tight end, linebacker, or even defensive end in college, depending on how he develops.
Only one receiver is expected to sign on Wednesday, and the Vols won't have to worry about Vic Wharton flipping elsewhere. Wharton, a Tennessee legacy, was Butch Jones' first commitment for the 2014 class and has been hard at work recruiting fellow high-schoolers for more than a year. Wharton, a 6'0", 180-pound athlete, garnered four stars from two of the four recruiting services and was being recruited to Cincinnati as a slot receiver before Jones came to Knoxville. Whether he stays there at UT or moves to defense remains up in the air, as Wharton is a versatile talent who has expressed a desire to play wherever he's needed.
Last on our tour of offensive skill positions is tight end, perhaps the most overlooked major need on the Tennessee team. Butch Jones loves getting his tight ends involved in his offense, but last year's roster was frighteningly thin. The only holdover from the three-year nightmare that was Derek Dooley was Tri-Cities product Brendan Downs. Jones immediately brought in a JUCO in Woody Quinn and true freshman A.J. Branisel, but while Branisel made a few plays in the passing game, Tennessee was unable to use the position as much as they wanted. With Branisel recovering from a torn ACL suffered late in the season, it was vital for the Vols to get some tight end talent on campus.
And, as may be a recurring theme, the coaching staff got the talent. Daniel Helm is a 6'4", 220-pound pass-catching tight end rated four stars by every major service (yet just a three-star by 247's composite ranking. Don't ask me how that works. I don't know their algorithm). Helm, an Illinois kid, had offers from many of the major players in the Big Ten but decided to come down South to Tennessee. While he will need to get bigger to serve as a blocker, he has the frame to do it, and Helm ultimately projects as a standout all-around tight end. Helm is already on campus and hopes to reach 240 pounds by fall camp. He is joined on campus by three-star Ethan Wolf, a bigger recruit who can also catch passes. Wolf is already 6'6" and 240 pounds, but he has the frame to be bigger and should benefit from an extra semester in an SEC strength and conditioning program. Ultimately, he projects as a blocking tight end who can hopefully maintain some of the pass-catching ability he showed in high school. There are no remaining targets at the position for the 2014 class, but Wolf and Helm should provide the Vols with a solid group going forward.
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