After a rocky season and an even rockier head coaching change, Rocky Top will be home-sweet-home to 20 incoming recruits in 2021. Headlined by seven four-star players, the 2021 class finished 19th in the NCAA and 7th in the SEC. Being a former recruiting assistant, I decided to grade each of the recruits and give my humble opinion on the guys I think could make an impact in year one. Full disclosure, I’m a grad student at another school now, so I didn’t have the time put in the same level of effort I would if this was still my full time job -- I only watched the highlight tapes (which will never show you the full picture of a player and can be quite misleading) rather than every snap of every game (literally shows you the full picture). Formalities out of the way, let’s get into it. Here are my seven highest-graded recruits (and a kicker too!) from the 2021 class:
Tiyon Evans, 4* Running Back, Hutchinson Community College, Kansas
I usually don’t get too excited about JUCO recruits -- there’s typically some sort of red flag involved, whether it be academic problems, legal issues, or just not being a good enough player in high school to go DI. I don’t know which, if any, of those categories that Evans falls under, but I don’t care -- he’s elite. Watching his sophomore highschool tape, I had already decided he was the best player on the field. He has an SEC-ready frame at 5’10½ and 215lbs (right online with NFL averages of 5’10⅝ and 214lbs). He can catch the ball, return kicks, and most importantly, make people miss. He has incredible balance/body control and is extremely tough to tackle -- he bounces right off guys. He knows how to be patient with his blocks and makes use of his elite stop/start ability. My only question marks for him are speed (fast but not elite speed) and blocking ability (didn’t show up much on tape). If anyone on this roster is going to be able to replace the production of Eric Gray and Ty Chandler, it’s gonna be Evans.
Hendon Hooker, 3* Quarterback, Virginia Tech, Virginia
From what I’ve seen, VT rotated a lot of quarterbacks throughout the past couple seasons. As we know from experience, that’s typically not a good thing. Nevertheless, if we only look at Hooker’s skillset, he’s still a really intriguing player for the Vols. His frame is ok -- 6’4 204lbs (NFL averages are 6’3½ and 224lbs). No disrespect to Brian Mauer, but Hooker will be the best dual-threat QB on the roster. His elusive both inside the pocket and on the run are insane -- he has great speed and gains yards by making guys miss when he can or running straight through them when he can’t. As a thrower, he shows no hesitation (both a gift and a curse -- he gets the ball out fast but makes some shaky decisions). He has a pretty quick release and an accurate delivery. Best of all, he doesn’t seem to be affected by pressure. I will say, this is the one guy I wish I could’ve found more film on. You really need to watch an all-throws tape before you can get a real handle on a quarterback, and I just couldn’t find near enough on him to get a true view of his negatives. That being said, I give him the best odds of backing up Harrison Bailey (if not winning the starting job outright) out of all the guys on the roster. His fall camp will definitely be one to watch.
Kaemen Marley, 4* Athlete, Eastern Randolph, North Carolina
Out of the three "athletes" in the recruiting class, Marley is definitely the most athletic. He would make a hell of a good safety, but I think he’s a little bit better at receiver. We’ll grade both aspects of his game just to be safe. At 6’2 206lbs, he’s already above the NFL averages for both positions (6’0½ and 203lbs for WR, 5’11¾ and 204lbs for SAF). He’s really fast, has good hand/eye coordination, and tracks the ball well. He’s a fantastic downfield blocker and plays to the point where I almost worry he can be a little too physical for an offensive player, as if that’s a thing. He wins the jump balls and is tough to bring down for smaller defenders. On defense, he’s a physical player that’s not afraid to hit you. I noticed in his sophomore film that he likes to catch with his body squared up to the QB, which would benefit him as a safety. My only question mark for Marley is what he looks like now -- I was unable to find anything more recent than his junior film. I’m sure Tennessee’s coaches wouldn’t have signed him without a more complete picture though, so I look forward to seeing him in the orange and white.
Miles Campbell, 3* Tight End, South Paulding, Georgia
One thing Tennessee has lacked for the past several seasons is a game-breaking tight end. I’m not sure Campbell will be that, but he has as good a chance as any of the other guys on the roster. This man can do a little bit of everything -- he catches really well, has some speed, and absolutely destroys guys with his blocking. He has strong legs, which makes him tough to bring down once he gets a full head of steam. I wouldn’t say he is explosive, but he does have a good release off the line and flashes some wiggle in the open field, including a nice little jump-cut. Like I touched on earlier, he’s a legit blocker and has good strength for a smaller tight end. As far as his frame goes, I really want to see him add weight. He currently checks in at 6’3 238lbs which is well below the NFL averages of 6’4⅞ and 253lbs. I look forward to seeing him grow under Heupel’s coaching staff -- Campbell also played QB and OLB, so being able to commit to TE full-time should only help his development.
Amari McNeill, 3* Offensive Tackle, Peachtree Ridge, Georgia
When watching offensive linemen, it’s common to see a whole lot of run blocking and only a handful of snaps in pass protection. McNeill’s tape is not like that. He’s a legit anchor on the end of the line, and he’s not afraid to put it on film. He’s a strong, athletic linemen that moves well in space, and he knows how to use his hands. He wins 1v1 matchups and bodies defenders. I trust him at OT -- something I don’t typically write down when watching high school linemen. My only concern is his frame -- McNeill is currently listed as 6’4 280lbs, which is down from the NFL average of 6’6 313lbs. If he can add a couple more pounds without sacrificing his movement ability, I think he could have a good career on Rocky Top.
Cobi Andison, 3* Wide Receiver, Northeast Mississippi Community College, Mississippi
The second JUCO player on this list, Andison is a speedy receiver that makes impressive catches through contact. I love his range -- he has an incredible catch radius and can jump out of the gym. His release off the line is very quick, and he’s able to win in the deep part of the field. The thing that stands out the most on film is his elusiveness -- he won’t snatch anyone’s ankles, but he has decent make-you-miss ability and knows how to leverage defenders’ angles. Furthermore, he has great balance/body control and his ability to absorb contact makes him extremely tough to tackle. Compared to Marley, he is a little bit on the thin side, checking in at 6’2 180lbs (reminder, NFL WRs average 6’0½ and 203lbs), but being slight didn’t stop DeVonta Smith from winning the Heisman this year, so here’s hoping Andison can follow in his footsteps.
KaTron Evans, 4* Defensive Tackle, Saint Frances Academy, Maryland
The final four-star to make the list, Evans put together an impressive if not short tape study. I was unable to find senior film for him, and his junior tape was really short, so this evaluation is going to require a bit of projection. Evans is a big dude -- at 6’4 320lbs he’s actually well over the NFL averages for defensive lineman (6’3 and 305lbs for DTs, 6’3½ and 264lbs for DEs). However, all the weight has yet to slow him down. He’s explosive off the line and wins with quickness and acceleration as often as he does power. He’s picked up a nice hand-chop move that I really wish he’d use more often. He tends to play a little high at times, but that should improve with college coaching. Assuming he got better since I last saw him on film, Evans should make an immediate impact on our defensive line.
Chase McGrath, 3* Kicker, University of Southern California, California
I’ll admit, I have no idea how to evaluate kickers. I’m not familiar enough with the mechanics and techniques required by the position to give an accurate grade. However, when you look at the competition on the roster, you have starting punter and kick-off specialist Paxton Brooks, who hasn’t attempted a kick since high school and didn’t take over when Brent Cimaglia opted out, walk-on Marshall Ware who similarly hasn’t attempted a kick since high school and didn’t take over when Cimaglia opted out, and walk-on Toby Wilson, who hasn’t attempted a field goal in college and went 7/8 on extra points last season after taking over for Cimaglia. McGrath might not be elite, but he went 32/42 on field goals and 119/120 on extra points over 4 seasons at USC. His career long is 52 yards, and he was good on 85% of his kicks from inside 40 yards. He should be named the starter if for no other reason than he has the most experience.
And there you have it, the eight players I think are most likely to make an immediate impact for Tennessee. Now, I know what you’re thinking: "you left four of the four-stars off the list??? What’s wrong with you?" But stars aren’t everything; they can be a starting point, sure, but they’re not the end-all be-all for prospect evaluation. Can some of the guys I didn’t list turn out to be studs, even in year one? Yeah, totally, I hope they prove me wrong. Can some of the guys I did list flop? That’s equally possible, but I sure hope not. At the end of the day, the things the above guys put on film impressed me more than what I saw from the other recruits. Here’s hoping that *all* of them end up carrying Tennessee back to the promised land.