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Tennessee Football Recruiting: What to expect in the 2016 class, Part 2

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Projecting what to expect leading up to National Signing Day for Tennessee football recruiting.

Defensive monsters!
Defensive monsters!
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to the wild world of recruiting

I started writing this article and putting together the charts last week, but held off posting because of the NCAA recruiting dead period that started on Monday. With the coaching staff out on the road making visits to several of the Vols' top prospects, I thought the chances were good that Tennessee would close out the weekend with at least one, and potentially several, new commitments. That is not exactly what happened.

  • Thursday morning, LSU offered a scholarship to Louisiana defensive tackle and Tennessee class of 2016 commitment D'Andre Christmas-Giles. An unheralded two-star defensive tackle with only a handful of FBS offers when he committed to the Vols, Christmas-Giles was recently bumped up to a high three-star by both Rivals and 247 Sports, bringing attention from a horde of major schools. TCU, Texas, Ole Miss, and LSU all extended offers in recent weeks as rival schools finally caught on to the film that had impressed Tennessee recruiting analysts.
  • Later that same day, Tennessee defensive end target Jordan Smith took an official visit to Florida. Smith, a four-star defensive end from Georgia, had taken an official visit to Tennessee two weeks ago and decommitted from South Carolina a few days later. The Vols felt good enough about their chances with Smith to give longtime defensive end commitment Chidi Okonya (another four-star defensive end from Georgia) his walking papers.
  • Friday, mid-state wide receiver Nate Johnson committed to Michigan while on an official visit to Ann Arbor. The Vols offered Johnson earlier this month following a stellar senior season, and the shifty, undersized slot receiver had become a major recruiting target for Tennessee.
  • Saturday morning, Christmas-Giles announced he was decommitting from the Vols and opening back up his recruitment. Tennessee coaches had privately worried about the impact of an offer from the home state Bayou Bengals, but the Vols had recruited Christmas-Giles longer and harder than any other school-- to no avail, as it turned out.
  • Another domino fell later that day as Florida wide receiver and Vols target Eddie McDoom committed to Oregon. McDoom was on an official visit to Michigan at the time, so it's likely that Johnson's commitment stole McDoom's place in the Michigan class.
  • Saturday afternoon, Jordan Smith blindsided the Tennessee coaching staff by committing to Florida.
  • Monday, the number one rated quarterback in the 2017 class, Hunter Johnson, decommitted from the Vols and committed to Clemson, despite spending all weekend in Knoxville with fellow Tennessee commitment wide receiver Tee Higgins. True or not, it certainly looks like Johnson silently committed to Clemson and then spent the weekend trying to recruit Higgins to flip.

All in all, it was not a recruiting weekend full of happy memories for the Tennessee coaching staff.

However, as poorly as the weekend unfolded, the Vols remain heavily involved with a number of top 100 recruits. Unfortunately for Tennessee fans, the time between now and National Signing Day might as well be named Mr. Jones' Wild Ride-- unlike previous years where the Vols have locked up the vast majority of commitments well before National Signing Day, the current recruiting class remains very much in flux. With a much smaller class than in previous years, the remaining months will be filled with intrigue as Butch Jones tries to close with a number of highly ranked prospects.

Where the Vols are still looking

Despite numerous challenges during the 2016 recruiting cycle, Tennessee is still poised to land a class full of talented players. Looking at the average player rating in the 247 Composite, the Vols are only slightly off the pace of previous years, and have a solid ratio of almost 1:1 four-star to three-star players. Moreover, unlike the 2014 and 2015 recruiting classes, the Vols won't need many immediate impact players from the 2016 class as Tennessee returns the vast majority of the two-deep. For the first time since the Phil Fulmer era, the coaching staff has luxury of adding depth without worrying about throwing players immediately into the fire. Where are the Vols still looking to add depth? Wide receiver, defensive line, offensive line, and defensive back.

Wide Receiver (4-5)

At wide receiver, the Vols lose Von Pearson and Johnathan Johnson to graduation, with Pig Howard already dismissed from the football team. Unfortunately, all three receivers played primarily in the slot. With Vic Wharton's transfer and Jocquez Bruce's dismissal, the Vols have only recruited three wide receivers combined in the last two recruiting classes: Josh Malone, Preston Williams, and Vince Perry. While Malone and Williams are talented recruits, only Perry has the short area quickness and elusiveness to play in the slot. While the Vols hope that Perry will be able to participate in spring practice, Tennessee coaches would like to add at least one slot wide receiver in the current recruiting cycle.

In total, the Vols are looking at adding between four and five wide receivers to the roster by the time fall camp opens.

Tennessee WR Big Board
Name State Stars 247 Composite Position Commitment (Previous Commitment)
Mecole Hardman, Jr.
GA 5 0.9867 Slot None
Velus Jones AL 3
0.8752 Slot None (USC)
Nate Johnson TN 3 0.8656 Slot Michigan
Eddie McDoom FL 3 0.8785 Slot Oregon
Corey Henderson LA 3 0.8585 Slot UT
Kyle Davis GA 4 0.9825 X Auburn
Marquez Callaway GA 4 0.9450 X None
Donnie Corley MI 4 0.9440 X None
Diondre Overton NC 4 0.9361 X None
Mykel Jones LA 4 0.9144 X None
Jeff George JUCO 3 0.8798 X UT
Brandon Johnson FL 3 0.8691 X UT

In the slot, the Vols have a commitment from Louisiana wide receiver Corey Henderson, a three-star recruit with good deep speed and decent hands. Tennessee would like to pair him with another speedy, elusive player, preferably Mecole Hardman or Velus Jones.

Mecole Hardman is currently the number one ranked athlete in the country. Lightning quick with tremendous top-end speed, Hardman is a game-breaking threat at both slot receiver and cornerback. Tennessee has been after him since he was an unknown three-star prospect, but of late, the Vols seem to have trended away from him. Although the Vols continue to pursue Hardman, former Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has the ear of his mother (he allegedly found out about Mark Richt's firing while attending church with Hardman's family), so it's looking less and less likely (although certainly possible) that the Vols sign him.

Velus Jones, Jr. is a small but speedy receiver from Alabama who decommitted (sort of) from Southern Cal. Although Hardman is at the top of Tennessee's wide receiver board, Jones remains a take even if it means a current commitment (like Henderson) has to be given his walking papers. Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Michigan were all pursuing Jones, but the Vols are thought to have the lead.

Previous targets Nate Johnson and Eddie McDoom committed to other programs this past weekend, so it's not clear whether or not the Vols will continue to pursue either player. If I had to guess, I'd say that the coaches might push for the in-state player. The runner-up for Mr. Football, Nate Johnson (of Independence High School) has a really nice highlight reel and showed good development throughout his senior season. Tennessee's recruiting analysts brought him to the attention of the coaching staff, but they weren't the only ones paying attention as he committed to Michigan this past weekend.

At the outside X/Y receiver position, the Vols are holding commitments from junior college wide receiver Jeff George and Florida senior Brandon Johnson. George is a tall (6'5), skinny (190 pounds) long-strider with surprisingly good hands, who reminds me of former Notre Dame wide receiver (and Cubs pitcher) Jeff Samardzija. Auburn and several other schools have heavily pursued George, but the Vols seem to have weathered the storm. Like most junior college players recruited by Tennessee, he's expected to enroll early.

Tennessee's other wide receiver commitment, Brandon Johnson, is a bigger target from powerhouse Florida high school American Heritage, the home of one-time Tennessee quarterback target Torrance Gibson. On tape, it's hard to tell much about Johnson-- he's clearly a good athlete, but his team is so much more talented than most of the squads they play that he's often just catching deep balls over the head of smaller, overmatched cornerbacks. He looks like a developmental prospect who's really inexperienced at reading defenses and running precise routes-- and he's since dropped significantly in the rankings with an uninspired senior season.

Tennessee has been searching for another dynamic wide receiver on the outside, pursuing Kyle Davis, Marquez Callaway, Donnie Corley, Diondre Overton, and Mykel Jones. Georgia native Kyle Davis is the top ranked wide receiver in the nation and an Auburn commitment. Tennessee coaches still check-in with the jumbo-sized wide receiver, but it's difficult to pry recruits away from former Auburn quarterback and ace recruiter Dameyune Craig. The Vols were also pursuing two other wide receivers in Georgia-- Diondre Overton and Marquez Callaway, but Overton now looks like a Clemson lock. However, Tennessee continues to recruit Callaway-- he's playing his recruitment close to the vest, but the Vols look like they're in a good spot.

Michigan wide receiver Donnie Corley and Michigan cornerback Lavert Hill are expected to commit together sometime later this month. Most recruiting analysts expect the duo to commit to Michigan or Michigan State, but the Vols have at least an outside shot. Corley has consistently praised Tennessee's coaching staff, facilities, and family field. Similarly,  Louisiana receiver Mykel Jones is widely expected to commit to either Alabama or LSU, but Saban is starting to run out of room in his recruiting class and LSU's coaching staff is a mess at this point.

Even though it might seem that the Vols are running out of options at wide receiver, nothing could be further from the truth as Tennessee coaches continue to evaluate and extend offers (58 at this point). Given the relentless recruiting shown by Butch Jones and the rest of the coaching staff this year, it wouldn't surprise me if the Vols pulled a late commitment from a huge and unexpected target. If Tennessee wide receiver coach Zach Azzani ends up leaving for Maryland, that will also shake up the recruiting board.

Offensive Line (2-3)

The Vols lose three likely starters: center Mack Crowder, left guard Marcus Jackson, and left tackle Kyler Kerbyson. Disappointing junior college transfer Dontavius Blair may also leave, although he still has one year of eligibility remaining. Offensive tackle is a priority, as Tennessee remains extremely thin on the outside-- the Vols have extended offers to six offensive guard prospects and 30 offensive tackle recruits.

Tennessee Offensive Line Big Board
Name State Height Weight Stars 247 Composite Position Commitment
Landon Dickerson
NC 6'5 293 4 0.9747 OT None
Ryan Johnson TN 6'6 285 4
0.9009 OT UT
E.J. Price GA 6'6 311 4 0.9704 OT None
Marcus Tatum FL 6'6.5
255
3
0.8777
OT None
Nathan Niehaus OH 6'6
250
3
0.8322 OT West Virginia

Tennessee has a firm commitment from mid-state offensive tackle Ryan Johnson, who has a truly terrifying flat-top haircut that makes him look like Rocky villain Ivan Drago. The Vols have been looking to add another potential tackle to this class, evaluating a huge number of prospects. Right now, Tennessee's number one recruiting target is North Carolina offensive tackle Landon Dickerson, a huge, athletic prospect who needs to add strength. The Vols have been trending in his recruitment for the last few months, but Florida has recently come onto the scene strongly, offering Dickerson and trying to get him onto campus for an official visit. If Tennessee can hold off the Gators, Dickerson should end up in Knoxville.

Tennessee has also been the favorite at times for both Georgia offensive tackle E.J. Price and Florida tackle Marcus Tatum, but both currently seem to favor other schools. The Vols recently looked at Ohio tackle Nathan Niehaus-- he's currently committed to West Virginia, but he has the wingspan and athleticism that Tennessee coaches prize. He's more of a developmental prospect than any of the other guys, but with a redshirt year to gain weight and strength, he could be a really nice player.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention mid-state offensive tackle Bryce Mathews-- he's Ryan Johnson's teammate at Brentwood Academy. While he's currently committed to Ole Miss, there's enough time remaining until signing day that anything could happen, and Butch Jones has shown a strong inclination to try and keep in-state kids at home.

Defensive Line (4-5)

Last year's crop of defensive linemen are still maturing, but the Vols are once again after a number of difference makers along the defensive line. With senior defensive tackle Owen Williams graduating and Danny O'Brien moving into his last year of eligibility, Tennessee coaches would like to add a mix of experience and potential-- five-star freshmen Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle may not remain on campus long, and the Vols need to restock the pipeline behind them. Meanwhile, the Vols need to plan ahead for next year's graduating class which will lose seniors Corey Vereen and LaTroy Lewis. In addition, junior Derek Barnett will likely have the option of early entry into the NFL draft.

Tennessee Defensive Line Big Board
Name State Height Weight Stars 247 Composite Position Commitment
Alexis Johnson JUCO 6'4 297 4 0.8900 DT UT
D'Andre Christmas-Giles LA 6'3 290 3 0.8738 DT None (UT)
Derrick Brown GA 6'4 318 5
0.9949 DT None
Tyler Clark GA 6'3 290 4 0.9057 DT Georgia
Michail Carter GA 6'4 302 4 0.9302 DT None
Emmit Gooden TN 6'4 295 4 0.8944 DE/DT None (UT)
Jonathan Kongbo JUCO
6'5.5 264 4 0.9388 DE UT
Daniel Bituli TN 6'4 230 4 0.9254 OLB/DE UT
Jeffery Simmons MS 6'4 262 4 0.9799 DE None
Patrick Bethel FL 6'3 249 4 0.9120 DE None
Jordan Smith GA 6'5.5 220 4 0.8901 DE Florida (SC)
Keir Thomas FL 6'2 249 3 0.8783 DE None

At defensive tackle, Tennessee is expecting four-star junior college defensive tackle Alexis Johnson to enroll early (BTW: is it just me, or does it seem like this is the year of the Johnson in recruiting?). Johnson is a dynamic inside pass rusher and a disruptive force on passing downs in the mold of former Vol Jordan Williams, only larger and stronger. With the decommitment of Christmas-Giles, the Vols have focused on three Georgia players: five-star Derrick Brown and four-stars Tyler Clark and Michail Carter. Brown is the best of the three-- a top ten national player, he would instantly vault Tennessee's class into the 10-15 range. He's comparable to Shy Tuttle, with surprising quickness and agility for such a big body. Almost everyone in the country has offered Brown, but Georgia, Tennessee, Auburn, and Alabama are the teams he mentions most often in recruitment. He was long considered a lock to the Bulldogs, but the turnover in the coaching staff has made that less of a certainty.

Mark Richt's firing has also helped the Vols make up ground with Tyler Clark-- the Georgia commitment hasn't been a top priority for the new coaching staff as they evaluate prospects, and Tennessee coaches have swooped in to try and persuade him to take a look at Tennessee. Clark recently visited Knoxville, and the coaching staff continues to make him a priority. Michail Carter is another player that Tennessee coaches are evaluating, although new Georgia coach Kirby Smart seems determined to keep him in-state.

Finally, in-state defensive end/defensive tackle Emmitt Gooden is a player who was once committed to the Vols, but now seems likely to go to junior college. Mississippi State is the leader in his recruitment, but a number of schools have backed off due to his academic troubles-- he will struggle to qualify. Look for the Vols to keep in contact and potentially pursue him down the line.

At defensive end, Tennessee has a weak verbal commitment from junior college four-star Jonathan Kongbo. A Canadian with only a single year playing at the college level, Kongbo is an elite developmental prospect with offers from everyone in the country. If Tennessee can keep him, the Vols will be adding a likely difference maker with great speed and a relentless attitude. If they lose him, it's likely that they'll see him on the other side of the line in crimson, purple, or other SEC colors.

The rest of the defensive end board is a complete mess-- Tennessee coaches were counting on a commitment from four-star Georgia defensive end Jordan Smith and slow-played a number of other potential commitments including three-star junior college lineman Jordan Bonner (who committed to Kentucky this past weekend), three-star Keir Thomas, four-star Patrick Bethel, and others. Tennessee also missed on four-star Georgia defensive end Tony Clayton, who committed to Florida despite a full-court press from the coaching staff. It's not clear who the Vols prefer at this point, but the coaches would like to add at least one dynamic pass rusher to pair with Kongbo (a strongside end) and at least one potential backup in case Kongbo decommits.

The best player remaining on Tennessee's defensive end recruiting board is four-star Mississippi lineman Jeffery Simmons. Simmons took an official visit to Tennessee in November and seems to like the Vols, but it's always difficult to pry Mississippi kids away from the in-state schools. A fast, powerful player with a large frame, Simmons is a top-tier defensive end recruit who would be Derek Barnett's primary backup as soon as he arrived on campus.

After Simmons, the Vols have an entire tier of smaller or more raw prospects they could potentially pursue, including the aforementioned Keir Thomas and others.

Next: Nigel Warrior and the Confusing Situation in the Defensive Backfield