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Bust Watch: Tennessee Players Running Out of Time

Three who need to step it up in 2019.

NCAA Football: Massachusetts at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

From 2015 to 2017, Tennessee football signed 31 blue-chip recruits. These 31 were pretty fairly distributed across both sides of the ball, and the first couple of classes were supposed to be the ones that brought Tennessee back to the mountaintop. That obviously never happened. Whether it was the chicken or the egg, it was also true that those blue-chips never seemed to properly develop as players. Most never lived up to their recruiting ranking.

The Volunteers now enter 2019 with just a handful of blue chips remaining from those 2015 and 2016 classes. Of those remaining, there’s three we have highlighted who have one final shot at living up to their ranking coming out of high school.

We are focusing on players whose roles are unclear in the upcoming season. Other blue-chip players who are surefire starters will have their opportunity to prove themselves.

For instance: Jarrett Guarantano. We all know he’s the starting QB, and he’s going to have the chance to either live up to his ranking or fall short of it. This article isn’t meant to identify players like him. It’s meant to identify players who are in much more precarious positions: where they’ve waffled in and out of starting or just haven’t seen the field at all.

As always, the measure of someone’s worth to a team goes beyond their play on the field. This analysis is strictly looking at their production vs. their recruiting ranking.

Maleik Gray

Gray is the youngest player to be included on this list, for fair reason. Gray was a top-100 recruit in the class of 2017 who projected best at either safety or cornerback. He was a very talented recruit who had legitimate offers from the biggest names in the country. When he signed with Tennessee, some were even expecting him to contribute as a freshman.

It hasn’t panned out so far. Gray didn’t do anything in 2017, and he was switched to wide receiver prior to the start of 2018. If he made an impact there, he probably wouldn’t be on the list. But Gray failed to see the field yet again. He now enters 2019 back on the defensive side of the ball, but it is unknown how much of an impact he will make.

The good news is that Gray does have the most time remaining of any player listed in this article. At the same time, it is a bit worrying that he hasn’t been able to carve out a place on the field just yet. Someone with his talent should be utilizing it heading into his third year. Granted, it’s only his second in Pruitt’s system, but Gray is starting to run out of excuses. If he can’t make an impact in the secondary for 2019, it’s hard to see him living up to his ranking at all.

Tyler Byrd

Speaking of switching positions, it is hard to think of a player that has experienced the amount of uncertainty that Tyler Byrd has. The senior from Florida has undergone at least two position changes in his time in Knoxville. Originally Byrd was a top-100 player and top-10 cornerback in the 2016 class.

But Butch Jones and his staff thought his best impact would be at wide receiver. Byrd initially succeeded there, putting up over 200 receiving yards as a true freshman while displaying solid potential. Then 2017 came and Byrd dropped off the face of the earth. Fans started wondering whether or not Byrd should be placed back at his original position coming out of high school—which eventually did happen during the 2018 spring practices. Pruitt moved Byrd to the defensive secondary and even praised him for his instincts.

That didn’t last long, however. Byrd ended up back at wide receiver in 2018 and amassed exactly one catch (a touchdown against Alabama, nonetheless!) Presumably he is still going to line up at wide receiver in 2019. Given the depth chart there however, he will be fighting for 3rd or 4th option reps in a Jim Chaney offense. Unless Byrd radically changes his current trajectory, it’s safe to say he’ll become a recruiting bust.

Carlin Fils-Aime

Is cornerback becoming the new “Major: Exploratory” position? Fils-Aime was a 4-star running back when he enrolled at Tennessee in 2016. After playing there for two years and having marginal impact, Fils-Aime was switched to cornerback under Pruitt. Most actually thought this one would stick. But as Jeremy Banks’ fumble problems became debilitating, and Madre London’s running style wasn’t helping the offensive line, Fils-Aime finally returned to running back midway through the year. After making an impact against South Carolina, Fils-Aime was lost in the shuffle once more.

It seems that Fils-Aime will have the toughest road of any player in this article if he wants to make an impact. He had surgery in the offseason and won’t be back until July. By fall camp, Fils-Aime’s best scenario is that he’s the second string back to Chandler. That’s a tough pill to swallow for someone who at least showed potential in his first couple years on the team.