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Early Signing Day Preview: Tennessee Volunteers

Playing defense, not offense.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Against all better advice, the Early Signing Day for college football will commence on Wednesday, December 16th. The Early Signing Period will run through December 18th, and is expected to cover a majority of the college football signings in the 2021 recruiting cycle.

So, despite on-campus visits being shut down for a majority of the year, and many recruits only getting to know coaches through Zoom and texting, the NCAA has made no changes to the signing dates. You better hope your coaching staff had great Wi-Fi!

Luckily for the Tennessee Volunteers, they have a staff filled to the brim with great recruiters. Hence why they had a loaded recruiting class for most of the year. Unfortunately, on-field results start mattering after a certain point, and the Volunteers suffered a string of devastating decommitments in the past month. Now the class sits at 15th nationally and 6th in the SEC. That’s a considerable step back from the 2020 class at 10th nationally. The conference ranking will likely end up worse as well.

For now, Tennessee’s staff must play defense on their current commits. They have 23 in the class, and 10 of them are blue chips. There’s a few more who aren’t blue chips, but were pursued by major programs like Alabama and Clemson. When your team is 3-6, you can’t be hoping to pull off a bunch of Top-100 recruits. It’s time to just lock down who you have committed, and hope they can change your fortunes next year.

Some reminders

If a commit don’t sign early, they are typically viewed as “uncommitted” or something close to it. That doesn’t mean a team is in a bad spot with the recruit, but it does mean they didn’t necessarily do enough to lock them down. It means the recruit is actively keeping their options open, just in case a team comes in and sways them.

Think about it from the team’s perspective: They are giving a recruit a chance to sign, and the recruit is turning it down. A verbal commitment doesn’t mean anything at that stage.

There are also times when this delay is initiated by the team. Typically, those cases involve a recruit whose grades are still an issue, or a recruit whose spot might be in jeopardy due to recent developments on the trail. The latter is more common than people realize, and it’s a dirty part of the business.

As a final reminder, this is the Early Signing Day/Period. The traditional signing day takes place in February, and Tennessee has quite a few targets who might announce after the Early Signing Period is over. Those include 4-star DT Tywone Malone, 3-star JUCO DE Byron Young, 4-star CB Terrion Arnold, and more. If a recruit isn’t mentioned here, Tennessee might have another shot at them down the road.

Who might Tennessee grab?

5-star LB Terrence Lewis

Astute readers will notice three of the names on here have been linked with Auburn. Both Lewis and Wallace were trending Auburn’s way, while Hunter is a current commit.

All three are on here for the same reason, since Gus Malzahn’s firing has provoked a lot of uncertainty. With Lewis especially, it’s not totally clear how many teams are willing to take him at this point. Auburn seemed like the shoe-in option. Now, they may not be, and Lewis could very well find himself back in Tennessee’s class. I wouldn’t say that is the most likely option, but it is more of an option now than it was a week ago.

4-star LB Trevin Wallace

Wallace’s stock has skyrocketed over the past two months. Originally a Boston College commit, the Jesup, Georgia product went from a middling 3-star to a Top-100 recruit in the 247Sports rankings. His decommitment from the Eagles brought many teams into the fold, including Auburn, Tennessee, and LSU, to name some.

Gus Malzahn getting fired has likely thrown some uncertainty into this race. Wallace was a longshot for Tennessee (and is still unlikely) but once again they could force themselves back into this.

4-star DT Lee Hunter

If you’ve kept track of Lee Hunter’s recruitment, you already know why he’s on here. Hunter is a longtime Auburn commit who has routinely flirted with other schools, and likes to draw attention to what he might do. He’s still committed to Auburn and more than a few people expect him to stick with it. However, that’s not guaranteed. Hunter has been reliably pursued by Tennessee and FSU throughout his recruitment, and those are still the two main schools to watch.

Athletically, there are very few defensive tackles in the 2021 class more promising than Hunter. He maintains a Top-100 ranking thanks to an impressive frame and sky high ceiling. But more than a few staffs question his motor and how much it’ll take for him to capitalize on that potential.

4-star DB Damarius McGhee

Tennessee still has a chance here, but it is very very unlikely. All signs point to LSU at the moment.

3-star S Juwon Gaston

Very late offer, supposedly projects better at cornerback in college. Some rumblings that he’s more of a gem than his offers indicate. Recently got tabbed as a top performer in the Alabama-Mississippi All Star game.

Any others?

Tennessee could conceivably extend last minute offers if they think they have no shot at some of their targets in February. Alternatively, if someone flips, that would be another opening in the class. We saw with 3-star defensive lineman Amari McNeill and 3-star athlete Christian Charles that Tennessee always has a few surprises in the bag.

Who will not sign early?

Amari McNeill is the only one who has indicated he will not sign later this week. According to the GoVols247 site, McNeill told them he would probably sign in February.

There are still some unknowns, however. 4-star wide receiver Jordan Mosley has not made his plans known yet. 4-star athlete Kaemen Marley is also pretty quiet with his recruitment, and there is nothing on his end to confirm signing plans. Same deal with 3-star offensive tackle Colby Smith. Some think 3-star athlete Roc Taylor will hold off as well, but I would imagine Malzahn’s firing means he signs early with Tennessee.

Who could flip from Tennessee? Who could they flip?

These are always tough because signing day flips are becoming less and less common (no data to back this up, just personal recollection). Social media and the addition of an additional signing period means staffs are very rarely caught off guard—they know which kids are wavering and which are solid.

Right now, I’d say the one commit on “Flip Watch” is Roc Taylor. Simply because things were trending that way before Auburn fired Malzahn. Earlier this month, there were rumbling that 4-star defensive end Dylan Brooks and 3-star offensive tackle William Parker were two more that would reopen their recruitment—but that talk has died down, and it looks like both are no longer in the “Flip Watch” category.

As for a commitment that could flip to Tennessee: 3-star JUCO cornerback Isaiah Norris is one name to look out for. He’s committed to Middle Tennessee State, but the Volunteers recently offered. I think Tennessee’s cornerback depth is a glaring issue, so the staff might give him the green light.

Beyond that, there’s too many names to make any sort of firm guess. Perhaps Tennessee fights for Darrell Jackson? Or maybe they go after another offensive lineman?

How should we feel?

Cautiously optimistic. Most of the damage is done in terms of decommitments from higher ranked players. There could still be one or two left in the bag, but the amount of early signees is positive.

Truthfully? It could be a good day if Lewis indeed recommits to Tennessee. There’s a legit chance it happens, since he announced a Top-2 of Maryland and the Volunteers. Don’t discount Maryland head coach Mike Locksley, but right now it’s well within the realm of possibilities.

It’s hard to discuss recruiting or in-game results with the specter of an impending firing present. Could it be this year? Could it be next? How much do recruits know? All of these questions cloud our ability to say whether or not this is going to be an acceptable recruiting class.

Still...fans should always cheer on an influx of talent. Many of the recruits in this class were absolutely wanted by top programs. That alone should give you comfort that this is not just a throwaway class destined to be cycled out in the next couple years. There’s still hope here, and it’s imperative that Tennessee does their best job in the Early Signing Period.