The incredible work Butch Jones has done in recruiting became official on Wednesday, as the Vols welcomed 14 early enrollees to campus for January classes. The group of 14 includes three previous junior college signees - WR Von Pearson, OT Dontavius Blair, and DL Owen Williams - plus 11 true freshmen. The group as a whole includes both of UT's five star commitments, RB Jalen Hurd and WR Josh Malone, plus four four stars including Pearson, Blair, TE Daniel Helm and DB D'Andre Payne.
The most exciting immediate news for Vol fans is that not only did Butch Jones secure all of these players to the wire, but now you'll get to see them in what will be one of the most highly anticipated and informative spring practices in recent Tennessee history.
The four man quarterback derby, including Riley Ferguson in front of our eyes for the first time, was already exciting. But these newcomers are early enrollees at a program in desperate need of talent, which means they're not showing up early just hoping to contribute. Many of them will be looking to make an impact right away.
When faced with the cold end of the college football season (which for us was like six weeks ago and we're getting far too familiar with these late November endings) what's a fan to do? Think about next year's starting lineup with unbridled optimism, that's what. So when you start thinking about Von Pearson and Josh Malone lining up next to Marquez North and Riley Ferguson throwing them the ball, you won't have to wait until August to see it.
Jalen Hurd should compete immediately with Marlin Lane for carries, though there will probably be plenty for both to go around. Meanwhile as Tennessee rebuilds its entire offensive line and looks at a tight end corps that caught 15 balls last year, there are not just chances but perhaps expectations that Blair and Helm will compete for starting jobs right away.
Defensively the Vols should feel good about Curt Maggitt, A.J. Johnson, Cameron Sutton, and Brian Randolph, and I think we can be sold on Corey Vereen's upside. From there, things feel wide open, so a guy like D'Andre Payne could also step in and win a starting job right away.
Despite some additional returning talent, the depth chart could look very different not just at the end of August, but the end of April. If talent has been Tennessee's biggest problem for the last six years, Tennessee took the first official step in righting that wrong today. These incoming players will face unfair expectations from day one, but also enter an environment where the bar is set low early because we haven't won eight games in seven years. Hopefully there are years of great football ahead of them. Butch Jones is doing a great job moving this thing forward. With the structure in place, today we start building with bricks capable of one day winning championships. But it's going to be incredibly exciting and very hopeful just to watch them take their first steps.