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Tennessee Football Recruiting: Grading the 2012 Defensive Class Position-By-Position

Continuing the grades for Tennessee's 2012 football recruiting class. [For the offensive grades, check out Thursday's post.]

Here's the defensive side:


Daniel McCullers 6-6, 380 Raleigh, N.C.; Danny O'Brien 6-2, 293 Flint, Mich.; Darrington Sentimore 6-3, 275 Destrehan, La.; Trent Taylor 6-3, 270 Lakeland, Fla.

Lot of folks may think this grade is a bit high, but I am very high on all four of these players, and I think every one of them could potentially make an impact as early as next year. Of course, UT hopes it can get quality play out of the guys already on the team and the two JUCO signees that it can bring O'Brien and Taylor along slowly, but Derek Dooley already has made it a point to toss away redshirts if he believes a player can help the team as a true freshman. With that in mind, all four of these guys will have the opportunity to compete. I think there is A talent in that group, but I just wanted one more defensive tackle and I could have pulled the trigger on a little better grade here.

Starting with Sentimore, he was a four-star player out of high school who had a standout season at Gulf Coast CC after transferring from the University of Alabama, where he played in all 12 games for a national champion as a redshirt freshman -- yet he only garnered three stars from some services. Mmmkay. I'll take my chances with this guy, thanks. He was a mid-term enrollee, and according to reports, is already setting the tone in the weight room. If he keeps his head on straight, he'll be a terror rushing the quarterback and will have every opportunity to spend his two seasons in Knoxville starting.

The Vols got a big -- and I mean BIG -- piece of the puzzle when McCullers committed on the day Sal Sunseri became defensive coordinator in Knoxville. If there was a defining moment when the break from a base 4-3 occurred, it was when the near-400 pounder pledged to UT. If he gets into school -- and all indications are that he will -- he will be a key to the 3-4 transition because just not getting knocked backward will make the middle of the line look like an interstate pile-up. As Dooley said at the NSD presser, McCullers is the size of two men. I hope he can make a similar impact as Terrence Cody did in Alabama, but the bottom line is McCullers will have to work at conditioning and keep his weight down. Still, he will battle Daniel Hood for playing time, and you have to believe he'll get plenty of snaps.

The two freshmen are also superb when it comes to potential. Nearly everybody in the country wanted O'Brien, who was a stalwart recruiter for the Vols after committing. He played out-of-position as a senior at defensive end, but he'll need to gain 10-20 pounds to play inside for the Vols. Still, you have to think he'll compete for snaps, and he already comes from a stellar program who will have him as prepared as he can be. Hopefully, UT can redshirt O'Brien, but the Vols want him to be good enough to play, too. As for Taylor, I believe he's the most underrated player in the entire class. He was a three-star player, but Taylor had offers from the big three in Florida and decommitted from Miami to pledge to UT. He has gained 25 pounds -- good pounds -- in the past year, and he just looks like one of those jumbo DEs you see in a 3-4 like Alabama's Damien Square. Really excited about Taylor's potential.


LaTroy Lewis 6-4, 230 Akron, Ohio; Justin King 6-3, 215 Dunwoody, Ga.

I believe the two players UT got are going to be really good players. Lewis definitely benefited from the hiring of Sunseri and the move to Jack LB -- which is essentially a stand-up, pass-rushing defensive end. King has the frame to pack on 240-245 pounds and be a speedy monster in the mold of a Donta Hightower eventually. But neither of these guys are going to be ready to be quality players next year -- and the Vols need them to be. Because I think they will be good players, I couldn't give UT a D here ... but the bottom line is if you graded the perception of this haul at the position, it would be an F.

Why? Well, in the seven days prior to National Signing Day, the Vols lost two potential stars in Dalton Santos, who followed his heart to his dream school after a late offer from Texas, and Otha Peters, who was lured to Arkansas with smoke, mirrors and negative recruiting. That left Tennessee -- who'd already parted ways with eventual Kentucky commitment Khalid Henderson -- with two linebackers ... only one who'd played the position before. So, while I don't think the two guys UT pulled are D players, I think the Vols needed four linebackers, had four linebackers and just lost them.

King is a freakish athlete who actually played quarterback in high school and reminds me of one of those spectacular athletes that you redshirt, pack some muscle on and by his redshirt sophomore year, he's a sure-fire starter. Will he be ready to give meaningful snaps sooner? I think he'd have gotten a few more big-time offers if so. As for Lewis, he had plenty of top-shelf offers like Notre Dame and Ohio, but he has gotten used to playing with a hand down. Once he transitions to the outside backer in Sunseri's 3-4, he will be a nice player, too.

[NOTE: I think this grade could potentially be a bit low, so if the Vols help their numbers and close the deal on current Cincinnati commitment Kenneth Bynum, who is visiting UT this week and will make a final decision following his trip to Knoxville, go ahead and bump it to a C minus. He looks like a good future inside linebacker prospect ... not the fastest guy in the world, but a nice frame.]


LaDarrell McNeil 6-1, 190 Dallas, Texas; Deion Bonner 5-11, 185 Columbus, Ga.; Daniel Gray 6-0, 165 Lauderdale Lakes, Fla.; Cody Blanc 6-1, 190 Knoxville, Tenn.; Tino Thomas 6-0, 190 Memphis, Tenn.

I am absolutely thrilled with how the defensive backs class shook out for the second consecutive year. Last season, UT saw freshmen Justin Coleman and Brian Randolph along with sophomore signees Byron Moore and Izaeua Lanier play a ton of snaps. That was necessary, but they also played because they deserved to. This year's class looks potentially even better. I truly believe all of these players will eventually be starter types in Knoxville.

Starting with McNeil, Rivals rated him the seventh-best safety, but I only know of three who I thought were better. He isn't as good as a guy like Landon Collins because he's a bit rusty in coverage, but McNeil has excellent closing speed, packs a punch and holds his own in the box. Once he polishes his coverage skills, he's going to be a Janzen Jackson-type player who could fill out even more and keep his speed. He's a difference-maker, and UT is fortunate that it held off Oklahoma State late in the game. I love his game, and if the light comes on as quickly as the Vols hope it will, he has the chance to make a Randolph-esque impact next year.

Sticking with the potentially elite, Bonner would be playing for Alabama, Georgia or Arkansas right now if he hadn't gotten in some serious trouble on an official visit to UGA, causing everybody to stop recruiting him. As it turns out, the Vols and Oklahoma were the ones willing to take a late chance on him, and that is the Vols' gain. He seemed contrite when talking to Dooley about his past issues, and hopefully they stay in the past. UT decided to take a chance on him because of his elite skills, and he is one of the best cover corners in the nation. He possesses elite ball skills, and he will be a nice toy with which new cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley can work.

The surprise of this year's class -- and last year's -- may just be Thomas. He got injured last season and was asked to grayshirt, so he went home to Memphis, rehabbed his shoulder, then returned to Knoxville in December in incredible physical shape. He already has been clocked with two electronically-timed sub-4.5s since coming to Knoxville and is a solid 200 pounds. This kid also was an interception machine in high school, and it will be interesting to see if he plays cornerback or safety. Wherever he plays, Vols coaches think he'll compete for playing time soon.

How good is Gray? Probably not polished enough to play next year, but when he bulks up and his brain catches up with his incredible 4.3 speed, he could be a steal. West Virginia -- remember the team that dominated Clemson in a BCS game? -- really, really wanted him, as did Nebraska. The Vols simply never get kids like this out of Florida, but Gray is coming, and he is going to be a fine player -- or has the potential to be -- in a couple years.

Finally, Blanc is a man without a position. Will he play safety? Will he move over to offense to play wide receiver? Could he bulk up and play a speedy outside linebacker? For now, I think he projects well as a safety, and though I think he's much better than his two stars, he probably won't be ready to help right away. He needs to settle into a position -- thankfully, he's enrolled and will go through spring drills, a perfect chance to see where he belongs -- and go from there. He is playing for his hometown team, and you know he wants to be a local success story.