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Vols Recruiting: What Will Tennessee Do About the Defensive Line?

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It’s getting into disaster territory on the 2020 defensive line class.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 02 UAB at Tennessee Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For whatever reason, Tennessee football is struggling to get commits on the defensive line right now. In the past month, Tennessee had one of their highest rated recruits flip to LSU in 4-star defensive end B.J. Ojulari, and this past week they witnessed 4-star defensive end Jay Hardy stun everybody in choosing Auburn. Two players considered the bedrock of Tennessee’s future defensive line were no longer on the table. Just like that.

It has a lot of fans wondering what’s in store for the future of the defensive line—and more immediately, what’s in store for this 2020 recruiting class. We’ve compiled some thoughts about recent events, a few of the remaining targets left on the board, and a strategy Tennessee might pursue in the feature.

Strange Twists

So, recruiting is a headache to follow. Kids decisions flip on a dime, inherent shadiness means the entire process can get a wrench thrown in it, potential coaching changes make recruits reconsider things, etc. Everyone vaguely familiar with the process knows this.

But twice now Tennessee has been blindsided by a highly ranked defensive lineman who was viewed as a lock to the class.

Recruits tell coaches a lot of things, and this can lend itself to overoptimism on the part of the staff. Yet if a kid tells you he is joining the class, you tend to believe it.

We don’t claim to have the full truth behind the recruitments of Justin Rogers and Jay Hardy. We hear certain rumors and rumblings, and that’s the extent of it. But it is truly bizarre how Tennessee was considered the favorite for extended amount of time for both players (especially Hardy), only to see the rug pulled out from under them.

Usually staffs know when something is up. There aren’t many flips, decommitments, or shocking decisions that aren’t at least considered by a coaching staff. In Tennessee’s case, it’s happened twice now.

It’s just a strange development to take note of. We don’t have the full answer (and probably never will).

Remaining Targets

4-star DE Tyler Baron

The local Knoxville product is priority No. 1 in light of the Jay Hardy surprise. Baron was priority No. 1 before that too, but with each recruiting miss he becomes that much more important. He’s a very refined prospect who would give a boost in pass rush and general rotation.

His recruitment is very strange. He is not a lock to Tennessee despite having a family member on staff and being in Knoxville. Ohio State is very much still in play here, as is Oklahoma. The rough start to the season made it much more cloudy than it should have been. Tennessee’s best bet is to keep improving on the field and keep focusing on him as the top option on their board.

4-star DE Reggie Grimes

The ongoing saga of Reggie Grimes’ recruitment will come to an end in less than a month. As became obvious with his falling ranking, the disparity between Grimes’ potential and his actual play is being noticed. He is an athlete playing defensive end—not truly a defensive end currently. He is still an elite athlete who could become dominant if he received good coaching. The 2019 defensive line gives a taste of what someone like Grimes can be, and that’s why Tennessee is still on him.

What are Tennessee’s realistic chances? Who knows. Grimes is ostensibly favored to either Alabama or South Carolina, but he may not be a take for the former and the latter’s struggles are probably making him reconsider things. Tennessee has hung around and provided the tertiary option. Perhaps now that the choices are dwindling, Tennessee will push harder for Grimes to stay in-state and become a Volunteer.

4-star DT Omari Thomas

Tennessee has made this a battle to watch. Right now the leaders are probably Ole Miss and Auburn with Tennessee right behind them. The 300-pound prospect out of Memphis has only increased his stock since the beginning of the season, and he sure does look like the type of recruit who can come him and get the feel for whichever side of the ball you put him on. For Tennessee, that’s defensive line.

Being a bit late to the game here means Tennessee needs a bit of luck to become the favorite for Thomas. The best they can hope for is to win the final three games of the season and for Ole Miss and Auburn to collapse down the stretch. Otherwise they are currently fighting an uphill battle.

3-star DT Reginald Perry

Very recent offer and probably considered one of the backup options if Tennessee doesn’t get Baron. His tape is hard to watch (from a videographer standpoint) so we don’t have much analysis of his game. It is interesting to note that Georgia Tech seems to be the main school after him. Head coach Geoff Collins knows good defenders when he sees them. This could be the name down the road which turns into an All-SEC caliber lineman.

3-star DE Morven Joseph

Joseph is a bit of a one trick pony at this point in his development. He has special burst off the line and can be argued as a top-10 pass rusher in the nation (if there ever was such a category). Besides that however, he is a very raw prospect who isn’t even playing defensive end full time in high school right now.

Calling him a one trick pony sounds like an insult, but if your pony’s one trick is a good one, do it all the way to the County Fair podium. If the staff feels that the pass rush will be greatly diminished with Darrell Taylor gone, Joseph is the logical guy to put their effort into. He is currently committed to Florida State, but Willie Taggart’s recent firing has changed the situation considerably. Florida may also push hard here if Joseph is still available for the second signing day.

He will be visiting Tennessee on November 30th.

Future Classes

How this affects the 2021 class will be interesting. Right now, let’s assume that Tennessee signs three defensive linemen. Dominic Bailey, and then two more from either the above recruits or other finds.

That’s a smaller than expected haul and not nearly as encouraging from an impact standpoint. Next year’s starting defensive line won’t need immediate playing time from the true freshmen, but there needs to be better depth. Right now the projected starting lineup would be something like Aubrey Solomon-Greg Emerson-Matthew Butler. Darel Middleton would be right behind them and then a mix of guys like Savion Williams, Kivon Bennett, Roman Harrison, etc.

It isn’t bad from a potential standpoint—and if this season is any indication, players can make sizable leaps in this system. Yet it also means that after next season, that line is once again a liability without new talent.

This means the 2021 recruiting class will be massive for defensive linemen. I would expect no less than five signees at either defensive tackle or defensive end. Pruitt and his staff will also probably focus more on players who can contribute sooner rather than later. There might be a project take or two, but if the 2020 class finishes like we expect it to, it can’t be any more than a couple.