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Tennessee Recruiting: Where the Vols stand with several key targets before the season begins

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Who is in play for the Volunteers?

NCAA Football: SEC Media Day Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

As Tennessee football gears up for the 2019 regular season, the coaching staff is still working hard on the recruiting trail. Tennessee will be in a rebuild for at least one more year and will need another full class of players to officially flip the roster to Jeremy Pruitt’s liking. The encouraging close to the 2019 class (12th in the nation) has many wondering where the 2020 class stands.

Right now the Volunteers are 28th in the country according to 247Sports, with 13 commits in the class. There’s no doubt that they are starting slow in the 2020 class, even if they had a string of commits in the past couple of months. This also means they have considerable room for improvement as the months go by. It really does seem like Tennessee’s staff prefers to close strong rather than load up before the season begins.

So who are the Vols targeting right now, and what are the realistic options down the stretch? While every option is not listed here, these are the names you need to watch as the season kicks off and recruits start to near their decision dates in December (with some waiting until February). Chances are Tennessee will get anywhere from three to seven of the players on this list—which will leave a decent amount of scholarship spots open. We will write about those names as they appear.

Heavily Favored

4-star DE Jay Hardy

Hardy is not as much a sure thing as the guy right below him. Still, the in-state Volunteers have taken a lead for his services, and it appears that Tennessee will just need to fend off others for his signature. Georgia’s class is almost full, and Florida/LSU haven’t made him a priority yet.

4-star DE Tyler Baron

Most believe it’s simply a matter of time before the Knoxville-based Tyler Baron commits to the Volunteers. He fits the system perfectly, he’s from the area, he has family at the university, and earlier pushes from Virginia Tech and Ohio State seem to have failed at swaying him.

In the Mix

5-star TE Darnell Washington

Washington gets put in this category because he followed through on his recent visit plans and indeed made it to Knoxville in late July. Tennessee can offer what is essentially the starting job in 2020, since Dominick Wood-Anderson is gone after this year if he stays healthy. Washington doesn’t show a preference towards staying on the west coast despite being from Las Vegas, which can only help Tennessee. Alabama and Georgia are the two other main competitors for him right now. Depending on what Arik Gilbert does, this recruitment could change rapidly.

4-star DT Omari Thomas

Tennessee is quickly making up ground for the Memphis defensive tackle. They were behind Ole Miss for quite some time (and they still might be), but Thomas’ interest in Tennessee has been on the rise ever since he visited back in June. Thomas is an athletic space eater who could contribute on any part of the defensive line, depending on where the staff thinks he fits best.

4-star S Antonio Johnson

The Illinois safety who was committed to Tennessee for an eternity of...1.5 months...is still in play, despite the quick turnaround. There’s a reason he committed to Tennessee so quickly in the first place. The Volunteers still have a spot for another safety, and Johnson could fill it perfectly. Johnson decommitted after a visit to Texas A&M, but it is a bit odd how he never actually committed to the Aggies. I think the TAMU staff is still having some discussion about whether they truly want to go all in on Johnson. They signed two top-100 safeties last cycle and two more cornerbacks who could play safety, and they already have a near top-50 safety committed this year. They’re also still in on Xavion Alford as well.

4-star LB Len’neth Whitehead

It’s genuinely hard to understand where Whitehead’s recruitment will lead. Originally it was thought that he was Georgia bound. But as the Bulldogs’ class filled up and Whitehead posted worse-than-expected testing numbers, it appeared that he wouldn’t have a spot in their class. Enter Tennessee, who viewed him as a potentially great inside linebacker and maybe a running back if the dominos fell that way. Despite a big push from the Volunteers, Whitehead hasn’t reciprocated as much interest. Which leads me to believe that he might still be waiting on a Georgia offer—or another school altogether.

4-star LB Bryson Eason

A few months ago, Eason was fairly low on the staff’s board. Recent movement in the recruiting world means that he is back as a legitimate option, and that Tennessee is making an effort for him. Eason is an inside linebacker from Memphis that has a Power-5 ready build and noticeable strength. His weaknesses include that he is pretty slow to react and doesn’t have the speed Tennessee prioritizes for their linebacking corps. Still, he would be a solid player in Knoxville, and Tennessee’s dwindling number of options means that kids like Eason will come into play.

3-star DT Octavious Oxendine

The final two players in this section will heavily affect each other. If one goes to Tennessee, chances are the other goes to Kentucky. It seems odd that Tennessee and Kentucky are the main competitors for both, but the Wildcats have a 10-win season under their belts and have shown obvious progression under Mark Stoops. They have a legitimate sales pitch.

Oxendine is the more college ready of the two tackles. He could stand to lose some bad weight at 6-foot-2 and 308 pounds, but his advantage is that he knows how to wield it, while also being more athletic than you’d expect. He reminds me a lot of Elijah Simmons from the 2019 class.

3-star DT Tre’vonn Rybka

Rybka is the in-state option at the position, who boasts a higher ceiling than Oxendine, even if it’s still not totally clear where Rybka’s progression will take him. He’s 6-foot-4 and 281 pounds with more room to fill out. He boasts impressive ability to get into the backfield on almost every play, which likely comes from the fact that he plays defensive end for his high school team. Still, he gets too upright and his motor is inconsistent. Depending on who Tennessee takes, their expected contributors on the 2020 line will change.

Outside Shot

5-star TE Arik Gilbert

He’s visited Tennessee and talks to the staff a fair amount. Tennessee is still fighting an uphill battle here with Alabama and Georgia. The Vols big advantage over the others is their pitch on utilizing him as both a wide receiver and tight end. You can never count out Jeremy Pruitt for a Georgia recruit, but Gilbert is trending away at this point.

4-star DE Reggie Grimes

Tennessee has never been as high on Grimes as his ranking suggests. He is more of an athlete than a football player at this point in his development. They would still take his commitment if he wanted in. That lack of priority for Grimes means that other teams who actually put him at the top of their boards are ahead right now. South Carolina and Alabama are the main two.

4-star DE BJ Ojulari

This was not for lack of trying. Tennessee pushed very hard for Ojulari, and he was arguably the second highest priority behind Baron on the defensive line. For whatever reason, it always seemed that they were a backup plan for Ojulari. They’re still an option of course—but if LSU or Auburn give him the go-ahead, I think he heads to one of those two over Tennessee. There’s also a chance that Georgia greenlights him to commit.

Dream

5-star Sav’ell Smalls

From what I’ve heard, I think Smalls will keep Tennessee as an option in his back pocket, but they’re still below teams like Alabama and Florida State. Florida State in particular has an inside track here. If they have a better-than-expected season, Smalls probably heads to Tallahassee. Still, Tennessee’s track record with pulling nationally known kids will keep them on the periphery here. Just don’t expect him unless Tennessee has an unexpectedly great season.

5-star LB Noah Sewell

Basically, copy and paste what was said about Smalls to this section, replacing Florida State with Oregon. Sewell does have genuine interest in Tennessee, and the staff has made it clear that he is the #1 overall player on their board. Pulling a kid like this will require an array of factors. Tennessee can only control one.