When the going gets tough...
Following two great years on the recruiting trail, Butch Jones and the Tennessee coaching staff have endured a tough slog in 2016. Although the Vols have been one of the hottest teams in the nation this cycle, Tennessee has struggled to close the deal with top prospects. The Vols have hosted many of the top 100 players in the nation, but so far, only quarterback Jarrett Guarantano (#69) has committed. The staff remains as relentless as ever, but two major factors have negatively affected the Vols: first, the in-state class is the weakest it's been since 2013 or earlier; and, second, Tennessee doesn't have a dedicated peer recruiter like Kahlil McKenzie (2015) or Vic Wharton (2014) among currently committed prospects.
A weak year in-state
Unlike 2014, 2015, and 2017, the State of Tennessee has relatively few elite prospects in 2016. A mere seven players are rated four-stars in the 247 Composite and the top rated uncommitted player, cornerback Joejuan Williams, hasn't played all season after losing his eligibility appeal to the TSSAA following his transfer from Father Ryan High School. As a result, the Vols and a host of other major schools have backed off his recruitment-- as a jumbo cornerback, Williams may grow out of cornerback and into consideration at safety, where he hasn't played more than a handful of snaps. The Vols also whiffed on offensive tackle Bryce Mathews (of the relatively famous Mathews football family)-- despite playing with current Vols' commitment Ryan Johnson at Brentwood Academy, Mathews spurned Tennessee for Ole Miss. While the Vols are still technically recruiting four-star jumbo defensive end/defensive tackle Emmit Gooden, the onetime Tennessee commitment apparently has serious grade problems and will struggle to be eligible. Regardless of who he signs with Gooden is likely to take a detour through junior college.
Lack of peer recruitment
So far this cycle, Tennessee coaches have felt good about the imminent commitment of a number of players, only to be left looking for other options when the players have gone elsewhere. At running back (BJ Emmons -- Alabama, Elijah Holyfield -- Georgia), offensive tackle (Kellen Diesch -- Texas A&M, Bryce Mathews -- Ole Miss), wide receiver (Kyle Davis -- Auburn, Freddie Swain -- Florida), and linebacker (Jaleel Laguins -- Georgia), important recruiting targets have named the Vols leaders, only to slip away without commitment. As discussed above, part of the problem is that only a few of Tennessee's top targets live in state, but an equal share of the blame belongs to the lack of an elite recruiter among the Vols' current commitments. New Jersey quarterback Jarrett Guarantano is Tennessee's highest rated commitment, but he doesn't seem to have the right personality to bring other players to Knoxville. Early in his commitment, Guarantano talked about bringing elite New Jersey prospects Rashan Gary (#1 defensive tackle), Kareem Walker (#1 running back), and Ahmir Mitchell (#9 athlete) to visit Tennessee, but so far, none of those recruits have visited.
The Vols have also been hurt by the indecision of Tennessee legacy and elite safety recruit Nigel Warrior, the son of former Vols great Dale Carter. Unlike previous Tennessee legacies, Warrior has seemed genuinely undecided about where to play college football, with Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama widely considered to be his top three. Warrior is a four-star player ranked fourth nationally among safeties by the 247 Composite-- with both Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil graduating, he is a talented player at a position of need and probably the top ranked player on Tennessee's recruiting board.
As I said back in the summer, the Vols are expected to take a much smaller class this year. However, the projected number of players in Tennessee's signing class has continued to creep up over the summer as players have left the program. That said, this class is still expected to max out around 20-22 recruits.
What do the Vols need?
Tennessee is expecting to graduate 12 scholarship seniors in 2016 (possibly 13 including graduate transfer Ralph David Abernathy IV), including two wide receivers, four offensive linemen, and both of last year's starters at safety. In addition, the Vols could potentially lose a number of important junior starters to the NFL, including Marquez North, Cam Sutton, and Jalen Reeves-Maybin, although North's health and poor production this year is likely to prevent any potential leap to the professional ranks. While head coach Butch Jones has done a good job of adding depth and athleticism behind the current starters, Tennessee needs to prepare for feast as well as famine-- the excellent seasons turned in by Sutton and Reeves-Maybin could leave the Vols looking for new starters at cornerback and outside linebacker.
|Position||Projected Loss||Need||Commitments||Commit Status||Remaining Need||Recruiting Status|
||4-5||George, B. Johnson, Henderson||Soft||2||Looking|
|Defensive line||2||4-5||A. Johnson, Kongbo, Christmas-Giles||Soft||1-3||Looking|
|Linebacker||2||1-2||Bituli, Blakely, Hart||Hard/Soft||None||Looking|
|Tight end||0||1||Brooks, Pope||Hard||None||Done|
Where the Vols are finished recruiting
Tennessee is essentially finished recruiting at quarterback, running back, and tight end. Barring the unexpected decommitment of a current recruit or the sudden availability of an elite former target like running back Elijah Holyfield or wide receiver Kyle Davis, the Vols will not take any more players at those positions. At every other position, Tennessee coaches are still recruiting.
One thing should jump out immediately if you're reading the chart above-- the Vols have 16 current commitments (or 15 if Tim Hart decommitted last night as rumored), but the remaining section of the chart shows 7-10 needs that are unmet. The short, ugly, and true answer to that conundrum is that the coaching staff is trying to push committed players out of the recruiting class where they think an upgrade is available. In the last week, three-star Alabama athlete Ta'darryl Marshall and four-star Georgia defensive end Chidi Okonya have left Tennessee's 2016 recruiting class, and based on his tweets from last night, three-star Tennessee linebacker Tim Hart may be about to follow them out the door. Butch Jones is ruthless, relentless, and unsentimental when it comes to recruiting. If he thinks he can convince a better player to join the Tennessee football team without damaging too many high school recruiting relationships, he will absolutely toss a player out on his ear.
Core commitments (7)
Based on Tennessee's recruiting needs and outlook, the coaching staff will try to keep the following current commitments at all costs: quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, JUCO defensive tackle Alexis Johnson, offensive tackle Ryan Johnson (no relation), JUCO defensive end Jonathon Kongbo, running back Carlin Fils-aime, JUCO wide receiver Jeff George, and cornerback Marquill Osborne. Kongbo and Osborne are being heavily courted by Alabama, Ohio State, and other major programs, and the Vols will have to fight until National Signing Day to keep both players.
In-state commitments (3)
Butch Jones might be ruthless when it comes to recruiting, but he's also not reckless or stupid. Based on his previous recruiting classes, Jones won't damage in-state recruiting relationships unless he has plausible deniability. In the 2015 class, many observers thought it was extremely unlikely that the Vols would use a scholarship on undersized athlete Jocquez Bruce, but the coaching staff stayed the course... until Bruce arrive on campus and broke a few rules. Then they unceremoniously shipped him out of town as quickly as possible. That means the following local guys are probably safe unless they have academic or legal problems that provide cover for the coaching staff: outside linebacker/defensive end Daniel Bituli (the highest ranked player in Tennessee), tight end Austin Pope, and linebacker Tim Hart.
Note: Memphis linebacker Tim Hart posted a pair of mysterious tweets on Thursday, referencing both Ta'Darryl Marshall's decommitment tweet ("This game is a business") and a tweet about Marshall's decommitment by Devante Brooks. This could mean that Hart has been asked to leave Tennessee's recruiting class, but I'm skeptical for two reasons: 1) Hart attends Memphis University School, which is an important source of recruits in west Tennessee, and 2) Jones had to somewhat publicly patch up relations with MUS coaches (after he pulled a scholarship from an MUS athlete while at Cincinnati) in order to get on campus to recruit offensive tackle Drew Richmond.
Don't get caught up in the hype. This game is a business.— Tim Hart (@yunghart6) December 11, 2015
Between Tennessee's seven core commitments and three in-state players, the Vols have about half of the eventual 2016 recruiting class. However, the Vols have another six verbal commitments that may or may not end up in the class come National Signing Day: wide receiver Corey Henderson, wide receiver Brandon Johnson, JUCO cornerback Desmond Henderson, outside linebacker/defensive end Ja'Quain Blakely, defensive tackle D'Andre Christmas-Giles, and tight end Devante Brooks. Some of these players will be asked to leave if Tennessee coaches feel like they can upgrade at the position, and some of these players are likely to leave if they receive the right offer. In any case, don't be surprised if some or all of these recruits never make it to Knoxville.