The 2018 recruiting cycle wrapped up last week with national signing day. Tennessee pulled in a top 20 class in Jeremy Pruitt’s first attempt as the head coach of the Volunteers. With several new faces now officially in the fold, let’s take a look at which ones could find the field early on.
Terry Lambert: As Jeremy Pruitt tries to flip this defense over to more of his 3-4 base scheme look, he’s going to need edge rushers. While I think a few guys like Darrell Taylor, DeAndre Johnson and Austin Smith can transition to a stand-up pass rusher role, a guy like Jordan Allen is ready-made for the position. The 6-4, 230 pound JUCO pass rusher has already enrolled at Tennessee and could be in the rotation right off the bat.
The Volunteers are going to have to replace a few faces on the offensive line, so I wouldn’t be surprised if JUCO Jahmir Johnson and freshman Jerome Carvin were pushed into early playing time as Tyson Helton and Will Friend try to figure out a combination up front.
Conner Knapp: I think the offensive side of the ball is where we’re going to see a lot of new faces next season. I agree that the offensive front could look quite a bit different, but possibly Tennessee’s most deficient spot on its roster currently is wide receiver. So I would look for four-star WR Alontae Taylor - already enrolled and able to participate in spring practice - and top-rated JUCO TE Dominick Wood-Anderson to get every opportunity to work their ways into the starting lineup.
On defense, I think the most likely of the freshmen to see playing time is LB J.J. Peterson. Rated as the No. 48 overall prospect and No. 3 outside linebacker by the 247Sports Composite Rankings, it’s just going to be difficult to keep that talent off the field with Tennessee’s roster in its current state.
Noah Taylor: Much like the lead up to the 2017 season, Tennessee will look to replace some players on both sides of the ball. While the task will not be as daunting as replacing a Josh Dobbs, Alvin Kamara, or Derrick Barnett, Jeremy Pruitt and company will have to replace the team’s leading rusher and one of the top backs in the SEC in John Kelly. As far as running back is concerned, sophomore Ty Chandler will return with some valuable experience under his belt. In 2017, the Nashville product rushed for over 300 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The question will be who will get the bulk of the carries in his absence? That’s where another Tennessee native (Cordova), Jeremy Banks interests me. The former 3-star running back will be one to look out for, as for the first time in the last couple of seasons, the Vols won’t return a completely proven back like they had in Kamara and Kelly.
Keeping it on offense, like Conner said, will be one of Pruitt’s biggest recruits in the early signing period in 4-star WR Alonte Taylor. The Tennessee receiving corps showed promise in 2017, especially with the emergence of junior Marquez Callaway in the season opener against Georgia Tech. Unfortunately, we only got a small sample size as Callaway struggled with injuries through out the season. The opportunity for a young receiver to step up and get early playing time is wide open, and his status as an early enrollee will help him jump right into things once spring ball comes around in just over a month.
As far as defense is concerned, I’m going to go with four-star linebacker J.J. Peterson as well. Peterson is a guy who held several offers from SEC programs, most notably Alabama, who Pruitt beat out his old boss for. Like the wide receiver position, opportunity abounds for a player like Peterson to get immediate playing time, although he will not officially enroll until the summer.
Evan Winter: I like DT Greg Emerson a lot as a wild card. It’s been said that he is on the right track when it comes to his recovery from a devastating leg injury and there are two obvious factors regarding Emerson’s role on defense: a) New coach Jeremy Pruitt liked him enough to keep him around (see Adrian Martinez and others) and b) the Vols are in DESPERATE need of help on the defensive line. Emerson’s size (6’3” 305lbs) are enough to warrant playing time alone.
Staying on the defensive side of the ball, you have to go with outside linebacker J.J. Peterson, arguably the highest-touted recruit of this class. Peterson’s skill set is off the charts and there is no question that he will fit right into Pruitt’s 3-4 scheme and receive plenty of playing time - resulting in more chances to make an impact.
On offense, one would think that JUCO TE Dominick Wood-Anderson will be one of the top targets in the passing game. Incumbent starter Jarrett Guarantano showed a propensity to throw to tight ends last season, recording a 16-187-1 stat line in seven games when throwing to the position.
Hopefully Tyson Helton and Pruitt can find a way to exploit Wood-Anderson’s talents a la O.J. Howard from just a couple of seasons ago. If that happens, then he would become a tremendous asset for Guarantano’s development.