An old saying goes “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”. Tennessee fans are in agreement that pulling the 12th ranked class with multiple top-200 players after a 5-7 season is the equivalent of a “gift horse”, which they should be quite happy with considering the circumstances. Despite the disappointing end to the 2018 season, Jeremy Pruitt and his staff were able to sell their vision for the program quite successfully.
We should still be careful to take an honest appraisal of a class and not grade on too steep of a curve. There is a lot to like about Tennessee’s recruiting class, and it qualifies as a big win no matter how you slice it. There also remains a couple of questions that will need to be answered in the 2020 class, and some odd decisions by the staff which deserve further examination.
In light of the 2019 cycle coming to a close, we give our biggest positives and negatives for Tennessee’s recruiting class.
Offensive Line Rebuild
You wanted new faces on the offensive line? You got it. Tennessee did an outstanding job gathering all types of immediate contributors, future heavyweights, and general depth. They signed two 5-star tackles (Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright), one 4-star guard (Jackson Lampley), one 3-star guard (Melvin McBride), and one 3-star tackle (Chris Akporoghene).
If I had to classify them, I would put Morris and Lampley as immediate contributors, with Wright, McBride, and Akporoghene as future heavyweights. Ideally Wright would be ready faster than the latter two.
In any case, this was the type of offensive line class that Tennessee sorely needed after the 2018 debacle of injuries and subpar play. While the line might not take a gargantuan step forward in 2019, it will almost certainly improve. Come 2020 and it may finally be a strength. Pruitt and his staff absolutely hit it out of the park with this position group.
Immediate Help on Defensive Line
Tennessee needed to fulfill two things with the defensive line class: Immediate contributors, and an influx of general talent. Those do not necessarily follow each other. Tennessee went 1-for-2 in these objectives, so we will start with the good news.
Despite losing almost the entire starting defensive line to graduation, Tennessee should be able to shore up some issues with the JUCO talent they brought in. Savion Williams will be able to slide right in and bring some of the violence that no one else truly showed last season. Defensive tackle Darel Middleton is a bit more of a project, though his athleticism is hard to deny when you watch his tape. Same deal with Roman Harrison, who is now a 4-star on the 247Sport Composite and considered a top-200 player by 247Sports.
Tennessee did not revolutionize their defensive line with the 2019 class, but they avoided a situation where they’d be relying solely on their development of the current roster.
Secondary Depth Improved
Admittedly this could change depending on whether or not Anthony Harris qualifies. As it stands, Tennessee grabbed a very talented group of defensive backs all across the secondary.
The final tally is 4-star safety Jaylen McCollough, 4-star safety Anthony Harris, 4-star cornerback Tyus Fields, 3-star cornerback Warren Burrell, 3-star cornerback Kenney Solomon, and 3-star safety Aaron Beasley. The mix of immediate contributors and future options is very similar to the offensive line haul. McCollough and Harris could see playing time as early as 2019, whereas Fields and Beasley are probably options down the road. Fields is somewhere in between those two realities. How fast he picks up the system will be essential to grabbing a back-up spot to the talented duo of Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson. Solomon qualifies as a depth player.
Monster Finish at Linebacker
From “Very concerning” to “Okay” to “Good”, the linebacker haul was arguably the most impressive sign of Pruitt’s recruiting prowess. Tennessee needed to bring in more talent to raise the level of an inconsistent unit, and they nailed it with 4-star Quavaris Crouch and 4-star Henry To’oto’o.
Making it extra sweet was the fact that both players were the patented “signing day surprises”. Crouch was all but signed to Clemson when Tennessee pulled off the stunner and changed his mind at the last moment. To’oto’o was considered a heavy Alabama lean in the days leading up to signing day before Tennessee swooped in at the last moment and shocked the recruiting world.
Do not be surprised if both of those guys are seeing quality minutes by midseason. Each are very physically talented and fit their role in Tennessee’s defense quite well.
Some worries arose when 4-star linebacker Lakia Henry de-committed a couple of months ago. Safe to say those worries are more or less gone by now.
Solid Skill Position Building Blocks
Admittedly there were only three skill position players signed on the offensive side of the ball. But two of those three are without a doubt very talented and exciting players. 4-star wide receiver Ramel Keyton and 4-star running back Eric Gray were explosive and productive players at the high school level, so do not expect that to change in college. Nothing is ever a “sure thing” in college football, but it should be mentioned that both Keyton and Gray have traits that are hard to lose when getting to the next level.
Expecting them to burst onto the scene in 2019 is too much. In 2020 however? They could make serious waves.
Lack of Elite Defensive End
One area that Tennessee consistently missed on for the cycle was elite defensive ends. Roman Harrison could become one, but the Volunteers were really looking for the type of pass-rusher that could come in on Day 1 and provide a boost. They never found one.
It was not for lack of trying. The Volunteers were hard after Khris Bogle, Justin Eboigbe, Bill Norton, Nolan Smith, and a couple others. They came the closest with Bogle and Eboigbe, but those two signed with rivals instead. While they do not make or break a defense, an elite defensive end can cover up more weak spots than their position might indicate.
Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, so Tennessee needs to figure out why they could not entice even one of a handful of elite players with early playing time.
Wide Receiver Depth Not Addressed
The biggest questions on staff decision making lay in the wide receiver group. Frankly, it’s hard to figure what happened after Ramel Keyton committed. That is a top-150 receiver that stuck with Tennessee throughout the entire process, so the signs are there that the staff did a good job selling him on the team. Where was it for the other targets?
Guys like Jadon Haselwood, George Pickens, Khafre Brown, Trey Knox, Jaylen Ellis, JaVonta Payton, all of whom Tennessee was battling for. The original explanation was that Tennessee wanted more speed from the receiver group, meaning possession receivers would become secondary targets. That explains someone like Trey Knox, who never had great speed to begin with.
That also leaves fans scratching their head over Khafre Brown, Jaylen Ellis, and JaVonta Payton. At a certain point in each recruitment, all the aforementioned players were considered favorites to go to Tennessee. They all signed elsewhere. With Brown and Payton in particular, rumors swirled that they were ready to commit to Tennessee before the staff urged them to hold off.
The only other explanation seems to be that Tennessee had their sights set on the 5-stars. Both Jadon Haselwood and George Pickens considered Tennessee in their final choices, but just like the guys ranked below them, they signed elsewhere. It seems especially brazen to feel confident about either when you did not have an offensive coordinator for over a month.
The Volunteers are probably losing the majority of their receiver production after 2019 as well. Yet they only signed two receivers in the current class.
Expect at least three receivers in the 2020 class in order to make up for the misses.