With the regular season over, Tennessee football fans await the bowl announcement for the 7-5 Volunteers. But the coaching staff is certainly not waiting around. Instead, they are hitting the road immediately to do something arguably even more important than bowl prep: recruiting.
It’s no secret that college football is a game of talent. Do you want the best results? You need to get the best talent. Josh Heupel and his staff know that reality, and they’re working to use this season’s momentum in their favor on the recruiting trail.
The Early Signing Day is just two weeks away. A majority of Power-5 college football recruits will sign on December 15th, leaving few options for the February Signing Period. If you want to see how well your staff is recruiting, pay attention to what they do in December.
Tennessee’s class currently ranks 24th nationally and 9th in the SEC, according to 247Sports. It’s not good—and we have been upfront about our expectations for this recruiting class for a long time. However, a better-than-expected season means the Volunteers have a great chance to rise in the rankings next month. They are battling for a group of highly ranked recruits, and are putting the pressure on certain players to join the class.
We’ll be covering the mad dash to Early Signing Period over the next couple of weeks. As part of the coverage, we have eight recruits that you need to know about before the day comes around.Some of these are expected Tennessee commitments, some of them are long shots, and others are wild cards. What Tennessee does with them will go a long way in determining how quickly this staff can take the next step and get this team to competing for conference titles.
5-star DT Walter Nolen (Committed to Texas A&M Aggies)
Nolen quietly committed to Texas A&M a few weeks ago, while everyone else was watching college football. It’s a tough battle to lose, considering the relationship he had with defensive line coach Rodney Garner, and his proximity to Tennessee’s campus. That being said, it’s technically not over just yet. Nolen followed through on his campus visit plans and Tennessee is still pursuing him.
In case you aren’t keeping track, Texas A&M is putting together a monster recruiting class. There’s a good chance they end up with the No. 1 class in America. They’ve had a good enough season and buy in from their administration, which has helped Jimbo Fisher regain some of his magic on the trail. He is right up there with Nick Saban and Kirby Smart when he is actually focused. It’s going to be a really tough pull, and at this point I would not expect Nolen in the class.
Tennessee’s coaching change after 2020 was simply too much to recover from. It was still the right choice—but any time you change your staff, it will turn off certain recruits. They did a great job fighting their way back into his recruitment, but it just wasn’t enough.
4-star DT Tyre West (Committed to Georgia Bulldogs)
4-star defensive tackle out of Georgia who is still committed to the Bulldogs, but has seen a flurry of 247Sports crystal balls to FSU. West has reportedly planned a visit to Tennessee in December. Having followed his recruitment with FSU, I can more or less say that he is a longshot for the Volunteers. His visit plans are very fluid and there’s a good chance that he never actually shows up in Knoxville. If he does, the Volunteers give themselves a puncher’s chance. But it would be really hard to flip a top-100 type player with just a single visit one week before Early Signing Day. Put this one under “I’ll believe it when I see it”.
4-star LB DeMario Tolan (Committed to LSU Tigers)
Tennessee only recently got involved with Tolan, bringing him in on a visit on November 13th. The Orlando, Florida linebacker had a lot of suitors during his original recruitment, thanks to his versatility as a player. He knows where he needs to be in coverage and can keep up with receiving threats. Yet he can still bring the thunder at the line of scrimmage, and connect with the ball carrier.
When LSU gained his commitment in July, it was considered a big win for the Tigers. With Ed Orgeron being fired, that has prompted Tolan to start taking more visits. He gave rave reviews following his Tennessee visit earlier this month.
That being said, I’m still not sure Tennessee is in a great position for him. Tolan is still committed to LSU, and FSU is making a huge push for him as well. I do think that Tolan will eventually decommit from LSU (unless he loves the decision to hire Brian Kelly). But if that occurs, I think Florida State would be the main beneficiary, since they are closer to home. Tennessee has a chance here— especially if he decides he wants to remain in the SEC— but I wouldn’t count on him.
4-star DT Jeffrey M’ba (JUCO)
Tennessee will be reaching back into the JUCO ranks for contributors. It worked out pretty well with Byron Young and Tiyon Evans (pre-transfer announcement, at least). This go around, they are after the No. 1 overall JUCO player in the country with 4-star defensive tackle Jeffrey M’ba.
M’ba has one of the more interesting stories out there. He is from France, and only began playing football about three years ago. He was highly recruited back in the 2020 class, but had grade issues and was forced to go to JUCO for the 2021 season. Whereas some players might have faded away, M’ba kept going strong and proved himself in the JUCO ranks. M’ba’s recruitment has arguably intensified in the current cycle, with schools like Oklahoma, Oregon, Auburn, Florida, and more trying to get involved.
Much of this info can be found at M’ba’s blog with Sports Illustrated. It’s a really cool intro piece, and I highly recommend checking it out. He’s got a cool backstory, and he’s easy to root for. He’d be even easier to root for if he chose the good guys.
According to 247Sports, M’ba has a visit scheduled to Tennessee in December. This recruitment is so different from others that I don’t think you can really glean anything too much from where his visits are lined up. Instead, I’d look at who Tennessee is battling for him. The most notable would be Auburn at this point. In a head-to-head battle, I’d take Tennessee right now.
4-star CB Kody Jones (Committed to Michigan Wolverines)
Memphis athlete Kody Jones has been a favorite of Tennessee recruiting talk, but it’s never been clear if he is a real “flip” threat. He did continue visiting other schools, and he has never shut down his recruitment. But after this long in the process, with him still being committed to Michigan, I’m not sure how realistic he is for Tennessee. If the Wolverines go into Early Signing Day and he is still committed, I would not bank on a flip to Tennessee. But if he does decommit in the next couple weeks, the Volunteers are the betting favorites.
3-star RB Justin Williams
Tennessee is the beneficiary of a poor season from West Virginia. Williams was committed to the Mountaineers at one point, but after a rough 2021 season, he reopened his recruitment on November 17th. That was amazing news for Tennessee, who got him in on an unofficial visit on November 13th. Williams plans to enroll early wherever he goes, and all signs right now point to Tennessee.
Williams has a very nice acceleration out of the backfield, and he also has a penchant for backbreaking long runs. That should excite Tennessee fans who saw similar results from Tiyon Evans and Jabari Small throughout the season. Williams seems tailor made for the offense, and could step in and contribute right away, much like Jaylen Wright did this year.
It is essential for Tennessee to sign a running back like Williams after the season they just had. Their offensive firepower was on full display, and there will be reps for recruits to battle for. While the Volunteers may have missed out on in-state options like Dallan Hayden (Ohio State) and Jordan James (Georgia), Williams would be the next best option. He’s very talented and could easily outplay his recruiting ranking. Tennessee needs to close in this recruitment.
3-star CB Jeremiah Caldwell
When Caldwell decommitted from Kentucky in the summer, it was a good sign for Tennessee. They had offered him in June and were pushing for a visit. There were some who expected Caldwell to announce a commitment to the Volunteers shortly afterwards. That never happened, although some would say Tennessee is still the favorite. But it is a very close race with Michigan State, who can promise early playing time and being closer to home.
Caldwell has not really given any interviews and it is unclear where a lot of teams stand right now. When he last spoke to a reporter, he indicated he wanted to announce a commitment sometime around the high school playoffs. His Belleville team just recently won the state championship.
He’s a lengthy defender who fulfills a lot of the prototypical requirements of a cornerback at the next level. He could also transition to safety if he focused there. Heck, he’s even a legit wide receiver prospect—Caldwell caught four receptions for 204 yards and three touchdowns in the state championship game. That’s a Randy Moss statline if I’ve ever seen one.
This will be a very interesting battle to watch, and I could actually see this going past Early Signing Day.
3-star S Jourdan Thomas (Committed to Mississippi State Bulldogs)
Thomas has been committed to Mississippi State since April of this year. But given his recent visit activity, you’d be justified in thinking that his recruitment is wide open. Thomas has visited Tennessee two times since his commitment, and is scheduled for another visit in December. He has been one to watch for a while.
I do think Thomas will end up in Tennessee’s class— but at this point I am wondering what the holdup is. Despite all the activity, Thomas is still committed to Mississippi State, who had a decent season. That official visit in December is going to be key. Tennessee needs to close the deal and convince him to either flip to them, or at the very least hold off until the next signing day.
Thomas is currently listed as a safety, but he does have the skills to be a hard-hitting cornerback on the boundary. He is very physical and would bring a mean streak to the defense. He needs to work on the finer details of being a defensive back, but there’s a reason Mississippi State is fighting to keep him. Thomas gives me some Aaron Beasley vibes in how he plays and how some defensive coordinators might view him.