Last Tuesday, Memphis University School offensive tackle Drew Richmond verbally committed to Hugh Freeze and the University of Mississippi in a ceremony held at his high school. Richmond, a composite four-star and the top ranked player in the state of Tennessee, was the top remaining offensive line target on the Tennessee recruiting board, and his verbal pledge to Ole Miss is a significant blow to the Vols' recruiting this year. Despite committing to the Rebs, Richmond has publicly stated that he intends to take all five official visits, with Ole Miss, Tennessee, Ohio State, and Alabama locks for four out of his five visits. More importantly, head coach Butch Jones has personally taken over Richmond's recruiting, with innuendo strongly suggesting that Jones has lost confidence in offensive line coach Don Mahoney's recruiting ability1.
Perhaps the best take on Richmond's verbal pledge came from Vols' commitment Kahlil McKenzie, who tweeted:
Congrats to my boi @TheDream_75 on his commitment happy for him and he knows and y'all know I won't stop recruiting him but happy 4 u bro!!— Kahlil McKenzie (@KM1_Era) September 9, 2014
Tennessee's Need for Linemen on Display
Later that same week in Norman, Tennessee's young and mismatched offensive line was exposed by an older, more experienced Oklahoma defense, with Vols' quarterback Justin Worley getting knocked down on roughly 40% of his pass attempts, with seven sacks (two were negated by penalties), and one crushing blind-side hit that caused a fumble. The Vols also failed to achieve
consistency much in the running game, which was nonexistent for most of the first half. Only a pair of spectacular second half runs by speedy freshman running back Jalen Hurd salvaged respectability.
In case you were wondering if Drew Richmond saw an immediate starting opportunity open up before his eyes, he was most definitely watching the game, tweeting:
Oklahoma D-Line is pretty good know. Cut Tennessee Oline some slack— Drew Richmond (@TheDream_75) September 14, 2014
Where This Leaves Tennessee's Offensive Line Recruiting
The Vols currently have five commitments expected to play offensive line: in-state four star Jack Jones, high three star Venzell Boulware, in-state three star Zach Stewart, in-state three star Dylan Jackson2, and three star Chance Hall3. Of the five current recruits, only Jones is a lock to start at offensive tackle in college, with Boulware, Jackson, and Stewart all lacking the arm length and footspeed to play on the outside. Hall has the physical measurables to play tackle, but unfortunately, he tore his Achilles tendon during a preseason scrimmage, so he'll likely need a redshirt year to finish rehabilitation.4
Here's what the underclassman depth chart looks like with the addition of the current 2015 and 2016 offensive line recruits:
Note that players are arranged according to the position they are likely to play in college and not by current recruiting classification. It's very common for schools to move high school offensive tackles to guard and so it's very misleading to assume that an a player classified by a recruiting service as an offensive tackle will stay at that position.5
As you can see from looking at the chart, the Vols are extremely thin at tackle positions, with Coleman Thomas the only true tackle signed in the last three recruiting classes (not counting JUCO transfer Dontavious Blair). Moreover, there's basically no room for injury or poor evaluation: Tennessee is counting on Jack Jones to start (barring another JUCO player), and Chance Hall and high school junior Ryan Johnson must provide quality depth.
Former coach Derek Dooley's failure to recruit a single offensive lineman in the 2012 class left Tennessee with poor depth behind the 2013 starters, but the current coaching staff has failed to rectify the problem despite repeated attempts to do so. In the last two cycles, the Vols have failed to sign the top-rated lineman in the state of Tennessee, missing out on Christian Morris from Memphis East H.S. (2013, signed with UCLA) and Alex Bars from Montgomery Bell Academy (2014, Notre Dame). Tennessee appeared to be in great shape to sign at least two highly rated tackles in the 2015 class, with five star Chuma Edoga and four star Austin Clark both naming the Vols the leaders in the early going and two four star in-state players in Jack Jones and Drew Richmond. Unfortunately, the Vols haven't been able to capitalize on early interest from recruits: Edoga committed to Southern Cal (although Georgia remains involved), Clark committed to South Carolina, and Richmond, as discussed earlier, committed to Ole Miss. If the Tennessee football team is going to reach the lofty goals that Butch Jones has set out in competing for and winning championships, he is going to have to figure out how to fix the offensive line recruiting problem.
Remaining Offensive Line Prospects
- Drew Richmond. Yes, he just committed to another SEC school, but Tennessee will battle for his commitment until the very end. Richmond intends to take an official visit to Knoxville, he remains friends with many Vols signees, and he has weekly conversations with Tennessee coaches. Moreover, unlike many recruits from the Memphis area, Richmond has solid academics and understands the importance of life after football. Hugh Freeze may have the upper-hand at present, but Butch Jones taking a personal interest in Richmond's recruiting should tell you all you need to know about this one.
- Patrick Allen. Allen, a four-star recruit from Maryland, is currently committed to Georgia, but, like Richmond, he remains very much in play. With offers from Ohio State, Florida State, and Tennessee, expect Allen to take all of his official visits and don't be surprised if he flips to another school before signing day. The Vols are a bit of longshot, but they're still in it.
- Marquel Harrell. Harrell is a high three star offensive lineman and teammate of Tennessee commitment Venzell Boulware and current Vols Elliott and Evan Berry. He committed to Ole Miss earlier in the year, but later flipped to Auburn. If the Vols can get him on campus for an official visit, Harrell may decide the allure of playing with his friends on an up-and-coming squad is more than playing for Gus Malzahn.
- Alex Givens. Tennessee might have waited too long if they really want Givens, a high three star in-state product. At this time last year, he was considered a lock to go to Vanderbilt, but Franklin parachuted out of the Commodores football program with the nose firmly pointed at the ground. Givens is currently committed to Ole Miss, but the Tennessee offer has given him something to consider.
- Isaiah Prince. The Vols are longshot for Prince, who is one of the top offensive line recruits in the entire country, but he named Tennessee as a part of his top group of teams. With the struggles of B1G programs like Ohio State and Michigan, could the Vols jump back into the picture? Maybe.
- A junior college prospect to be named later, should any emerge. Dontavius Blair's struggles on and off the field seem to have put the kibosh on junior college linemen for the present, but don't be surprised if the Vols start turning over the junior college and transfer ranks in search of quality players. Overall, Tennessee has done pretty well evaluating prospects, with defensive tackle Owen Williams, linebacker Chris Weatherd, and wide receivers Von Pearson and Jonathan Johnson all contributing this season.
1. According to one inside source, it's well known that Mahoney is the "weak link" for Tennessee's staff in recruiting.↩
2. Stewart is listed by 247 as a defensive end, but like current Volunteer lineman Jashon Robertson, he is likely to end up on the offensive line.↩
3. Hall is listed by 247 as a defensive tackle, but he is being recruited strictly as an offensive tackle.↩
4. Assuming, of course, that Hall ends up a Volunteer, and that he successfully makes the transition from playing primarily along the defensive line to playing along the offensive line.↩
5. For example, Kendrick, Sanders, and Raulerson are all listed as tackle recruits rather than guards.↩