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Tennessee Football Recruiting Needs by Position

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As we reach the stretch run for the 2015 recruiting class, the Vols remain in hot pursuit of a number of elite prospects from across the nation. But which of these prospects help fill holes on the roster, and which are simply upgrades on players who are already committed?

Looking for some help for this guy.
Looking for some help for this guy.
Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

Background: Butch Jones' Ideal Roster

With last week's bowl victory over Iowa, Butch Jones finished his eighth football season as a head coach. During that time, his rosters have remained remarkably stable, with roughly the same roster size and composition across position groups, despite coaching at three different schools: Central Michigan, Cincinnati, and Tennessee. The graph below breaks down the rosters from Jones' last five years of coaching at Cincinnati and Tennessee by listed position. In order to see how the staff values various position groups, the breakdown includes walk-on players, who are often used to bridge recruiting gaps caused by differences in coaching styles or to add depth for certain types of practice (it also means that the rosters listed are larger than the 85 NCAA-mandated maximum). All information was taken from the official sites for Cincinnati and Tennessee, so there are minor discrepancies with the way players were used in real life.

Cincinnati Tennessee
2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 Average per squad
QB 6 6 5 6 5 5.6
RB 7 8 9 7 8 7.8
WR 15 13 17 15 14 14.8
TE 5 6 7 8 9 7
OL 16 16 14 16 15 15.4
DL 15 17 19 18 19 17
LB 14 12 17 17 13 14.6
DB 18 16 18 19 19 18
ATH 0 0 0 2 0 0.4
Total 96 94 106 108 99 100.6
Special Teams
LS 2 3 1 4 4 2.8
K 2 3 1 4 3 2.6
P 2 3 3 3 4 3
Total 6 9 5 11 11 8.4

A couple of roster notes:

  • Butch Jones has taken more tight ends, defensive backs, and defensive linemen (to varying degrees) at Tennessee than at Cincinnati, which probably indicates both a difference in the SEC style of play and weaknesses on the Vols' roster.
  • Jones has also taken significantly more special teams players at Tennessee than at Cincinnati, likely because he's tried to conjure points out of special teams through long field goals and trickery. The work that the coaching staff has done to prepare the special teams has probably not received enough attention, especially turning former headcases like Michael Palardy and Matt Darr into reliable options.
  • In comparison to the Derek Dooley-era Vols, Butch Jones' first two Tennessee teams have fewer running backs of all types, fewer tight ends, more defensive linemen, and (marginally) fewer defensive backs. Part of this is due to a difference in offensive style, as the spread designed by Jones and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian doesn't use a fullback, but another part is probably due to the struggle Dooley's staff had recruiting enough defensive linemen and defensive backs to the team-- and the quality of those players.
    Dooley 2010-2012 Jones 2013-2014
    QB 5.34 5.5
    RB/FB 12.67 7.5
    WR 14.67 14.5
    TE 11 8.5
    OL 15.67 15.5
    DL 15 17
    LB 14.34 15
    DB 20 19
    Special Teams 7 7

Analysis: Current Roster Needs

Based on how the average Butch Jones' roster is constructed, team #119 lacks enough players at several important positions. Expect Jones to either recruit or make multiple positional changes before the 2015 season begins to address those needs. Below is the total chart, with a breakdown of the most important needs following.

Position Scholarship Walk-On Total Ideal Roster Number Roster Need 2015 Commit Number 2015 Commit Name
QB 2 2 4 5.6 1.6 2 Dormady, Jennings
RB 1 2 3 7.8 4.8 2 Kamara, Bussey
WR 10 2 12 14.8 2.8 1 Williams
TE 4 1 5 7 2 1 Oliver
OL 11 3 14 15.4 1.4 4 Hall, Jones, Boulware, Stewart
DL 10 1 11 17 6 7 McKenzie, Tuttle, Picou, Ford, Butcher, Taylor, Phillips
LB 9 3 12 14.6 2.6 2 Kirkland, Smith
DB 10 4* 14 18 4 4 Griffin, Miller, Abernathy, Martin
ATH 0 0 0 0.4 0.4 2 Bruce, Perry
LS 0 4 4 2.8 -1.2 1 Lovingood
K 1 3 4 2.6 -1.4 0
P 1 0 1 3 2 1 Townsend
Total 59 25 84 109 25 27
Key Under the target number Over the target number

*Note that defensive back Michael Williams is not counted because he isn't with the team due to legal trouble.

Quarterback

Target Number 5.6
Returning players Joshua Dobbs, Nathan Peterman, Mike Wegzyn (Walk-On), Devin Smith (WO)
2015 recruits Quinten Dormady, Jauan Jennings
Remaining need 0.6 if Peterman stays; 1.6 otherwise
Targets Sheriron Jones, Deondre Francois

Positional Outlook: If redshirt sophomore Nathan Peterman transfers as rumored, the Vols won't have a single quarterback who has ever thrown a pass at the college level behind starter Josh Dobbs. With concerns about Quinten Dormady's surgically repaired shoulder and uncertainty about Jauan Jennings' accuracy, Tennessee could use a third quarterback in the 2015 class, especially a transfer or junior college player with experience. Former Florida commitment Sheriron Jones is talented enough in his own right to deserve a look from the Vols and he also makes sense as a hedge against the possibility that either of the other two recruits don't work out, but he lacks the experience the coaching staff covets.

If the Vols take a third quarterback in the current class, it sets up a logjam at the quarterback position for the following season, and makes it harder to hold onto to talented 2016 Tennessee recruit Austin Kendall. However, the coaching staff may prefer to kick the can down the road rather than go with what they currently have and hope that Dobbs doesn't get injured. Florida State commit Deondre Francois is also one to watch, but a moderately talented transfer actually makes the most sense.

Running Back

Target Number 7.8
Returning players Jalen Hurd, Jayson Sparks (WO)
2015 recruits Alvin Kamara, Kendall Bussey
Needed players 3.8
Targets Bryce Love, John Kelly, Johnny Frasier, Jaason Lewis

Positional Outlook: No, that 3.8 number isn't a typo. Keep in mind, however, that the number includes walk-ons, so the Vols really only need one more scholarship back and two more walk-on backs, or some combination thereof. How did the situation become so dire? Well, with Derrell Scott's transfer and Treyvon Paulk's dismissal, the Vols have only a single scholarship running back left on campus-- super freshman Jalen Hurd. Making things worse, walk-on Justus Pickett ran into academic trouble and was declared ineligible for the bowl game. At this point, he isn't listed on the official roster and looks like a longshot to return for the spring semester.

Former Alabama running back Alvin Kamara will immediately step into the number two role sometime later this week when he arrives from junior college, but the Vols will still be short handed heading into spring practice. If Ralph David Abernathy IV transfers from Cincinnati to Tennessee to play with his little brother Micah (a 2015 recruit), he will help will also improve Tennessee's depth, but I'd still expect the Vols to pursue several preferred walk-on running backs and be creative as Robert Gillespie tries to round up enough bodies to hold a practice session.

Depth should improve during the summer session, with Louisiana running back commit Kendall Bussey expected to be finished recovering from a torn ACL suffered near the end of his senior season. Athletes Vince Perry and Jocquez Bruce should also provide depth, assuming that one or both end up signing with Tennessee, but neither has the size to hold up as an every down back. For the 2015 class, Tennessee is primarily focused on landing speedy North Carolina running back prospect Bryce Love, but the coaches remain in contact with a number of other recruits including John Kelly and Johnny Frasier. Virginia Beach athlete Jaason Lewis, who is currently committed to Arizona State, also recently announced that the Vols will receive his final official visit.

Tight End

Target Number 7
Returning players Ethan Wolf, Alex Ellis, AJ Branisel, Neiko Creamer, Joe Stocstill (WO)
2015 recruits Kyle Oliver
Needed players 1
Targets None

Positional Outlook: With Daniel Helm's transfer to Duke, the Vols are once again short-handed at tight end. Former walk-on Alex Ellis earned a scholarship for the spring semester, but that doesn't change the overall numbers at all. Ethan Wolf's younger brother, Eli, is expected to enroll as a preferred walk-on, but that still leaves Tennessee perilously thin, especially if mid-state commitment Kyle Oliver goes elsewhere. The Vols don't have any current offers to uncommitted recruits, so I'd assume a position change is more likely.

Offensive Line

Target Number 15.4
Returning players Coleman Thomas, Mack Crowder, Austin Sanders, Brett Kendrick, Ray Raulerson, Dylan Wiesman, Jashon Robertson, Dontavious Blair, Marcus Jackson, Kyler Kerbyson, Charles Mosley, Aaron Adams (WO), Jonathan Reynolds (WO), Thomas Edwards (WO)
2015 recruits Chance Hall, Jack Jones, Zach Stewart, Venzell Boulware
Needed players None
Targets Patrick Allen, Tyree St. Louis, maybe Drew Richmond

Positional Outlook: This is where things get interesting-- according to the raw numbers, the Vols only need a single offensive linemen in the current class (or perhaps two, if Charles Mosley switches back to defensive tackle). Instead, Tennessee has four current recruits and is actively trying to land two more. Moreover, this is not a situation where the roster is heavily laden with upperclassmen-- the Vols lose only Mack Crowder, Kyler Kerbyson, and Marcus Jackson following next season.

Question: So what's going on here?

Answer: Based on what we've seen out of Butch so far, most likely a complete makeover at the position. When the coaching staff first arrived at Tennessee in the spring of 2013, they were shocked by the poor condition of the roster at several positions, including wide receiver and defensive line, and devoted considerable recruiting resources to fixing the problem. In both cases, incumbent players were shuffled off the roster to make room for more talented recruits, and that's exactly what I'd expect to happen here. This year's offensive line situation was dire, and yet we only saw Brett Kendrick, Austin Sanders, and Dylan Wiesman when there were no other options, even to the extent of playing true freshman Coleman Thomas at right tackle. That demonstrates a lack of trust that makes me think one or all of the three won't make it to 2016, so don't expect the offensive line depth chart to remain static. If Blair and one of the 2015 tackles can be serviceable, I could see Tennessee sliding Kerbyson back to his natural position at guard or using him as a sixth man.

Centers Mack Crowder, Dylan Wiesman, Ray Raulerson
Guards Marcus Jackson, Jashon Robertson, Austin Sanders, Brett Kendrick, Charles Mosley, Zach Stewart, Venzell Boulware
Tackles Dontavious Blair, Kyler Kerbyson, Coleman Thomas, Jack Jones, Chance Hall

Linebacker

Target Number 14.6
Returning players Dillon Bates, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Kenny Bynum, Gavin Bryant, Cortez McDowell, Elliott Berry, Curt Maggitt, Chris Weatherd, Justin King, Colton Jumper (WO), Michael Cantwell (WO), Cody Underwood (WO)
2015 recruits Darrin Kirkland, Austin Smith
Needed players 0.6
Targets Quarte Sapp, Jaason Lewis (Athlete)

Positional Outlook: Tennessee's linebacker depth chart has moved from a position of weakness to one of strength in a single year. The Vols have three completely different types of linebackers: speedy coverage linebackers-- Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Dillon Bates, Cortez McDowell, and Elliott Berry; traditional straight ahead tacklers-- Kenny Bynum and Gavin Bryant; and, hybrid pass rushers-- Curt Maggitt, Chris Weatherd, and Jakob Johnson (who is currently listed as a defensive lineman). Early enrollee Darrin Kirkland will likely fill the hole at middle linebacker left by AJ Johnson's graduation and recruit Austin Smith can play either of the two outside positions. The Vols are still in the hunt for outside linebacker Quarte Sapp, but at this point, he would be more of a luxury than a true need. Also, note that weakside defensive end recruit Andrew Butcher is currently assigned to a jersey number in the same group as pass rushers Maggitt, Weatherd, and Jakob Johnson.

Conclusion: the Vols aren't finished yet

With needs at quarterback, running back, offensive tackle, and linebacker, expect the 2015 recruiting class to remain in a state of flux up until signing day. Players without a true position or at oversubscribed positions could easily disappear from the commitment list like one-time recruits Cecil Cherry and Rocky Reid. It's not always pretty, but Butch Jones and the rest of the recruiting staff are remaking the Tennessee roster into an SEC title competitor.