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3 Answers, 3 Questions: Tennessee Recruiting in the 2022 Cycle

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What can fans expect on the trail over the next couple of months?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 02 Taxslayer Gator Bowl - Indiana v Tennessee Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In the annual whirlwind that is the Tennessee football offseason, recruiting news has been hard to come by. At least, good recruiting news. New head coach Josh Heupel just finished up his on-field coaching hires—a difficult task when you were only hired in February amidst controversy.

Is it any wonder why recruits aren’t rushing to drop their commitment notes?

Admittedly we are working with limited knowledge on Heupel’s recruiting efforts. He’s had his attention split between 50 different tasks, and that means it might be a while before the Volunteers grab their first commit of the 2022 recruiting cycle.

As we go forward, we wanted to set the stage for what to expect from Tennessee recruiting in the near future. There’s a lot of questions being thrown around with who Tennessee will focus on, who fans can expect results from, and more.

Right now, we are pretty confident in at least three things related to Tennessee football recruiting. But there’s also at least three big questions we want to see resolved before drawing conclusions about the staff and their ability on the trail.

Answers

#1: The in-state class is a new level, and Tennessee is trying their best to give it the proper attention

I’ve gone in depth in a previous article about the influx of talent the state of Tennessee is witnessing for the 2022 class. While the rankings are still very fluid, and I would not commit yourself to any specific numbers, I will say that there is probably double the amount of usual Power-5 level prospects in the state.

Tennessee is certainly put at a disadvantage in recruiting those kids, because of a late coaching change and the ramifications of a larger investigation. That does not mean Heupel and his staff are not putting an emphasis on these recruits. As of now, Tennessee is trying their hardest to make inroads with the various in-state prospects. They have recently beefed up their recruitment of the Wade brothers (4-star LB Keaten Wade and 3-star QB Destin Wade), re-upped a push for 3-star Anthony Brown, 3-star OT Jacob Hood, and more.

Even if Tennessee can’t grab someone like Walter Nolen (#2 player in the country) or Ty Simpson (#27), they can still maintain relevancy with some mid tier prospects who other programs want. While that might not excite fans, it is necessary for Tennessee to keep up the pipelines that may have been affected by the firing of Pruitt.

That also has larger ramifications in the future. Even though this year‘s class is an exception to the rule, we can expect to see an increase in the number of blue chip and Power-5 level prospects within the state. It comes down to population booms and the long-term growth. Especially in areas like Nashville, Memphis, and elsewhere.

#2: The defensive staff looks to be the stronger of the two sides

It really isn’t close either. Tennessee’s two strongest recruiters are Rodney Garner and Brian Jean-Mary, who make up two of the three coaches for the defensive front. Defensive coordinator Tim Banks also had a good reputation at Penn State. Defensive backs coach Willie Martinez is a known (if not impressive) quantity, and outside linebacker coach Mike Ekeler is a nice complimentary piece.

The only coach I’d say could match them on offense would be wide receivers coach Kodi Burns. He consistently brought in talent at Auburn—even if Gus Malzahn’s offense did a poor job of showcasing it.

The defensive staff is, overall, a very respectable group. Enough so that I think they’ll hold their own on the recruiting trail. It might take them some time to build relationships and soothe any worries about program stability, but Tennessee could very well see a sustained income of talent on defense. At least three of the coaches listed above have a proven track record of signing talented players. That’s all you can ask for.

#3: Tennessee can get creative with scholarships

Unfortunately, Tennessee having a lot of transfers/LOI releases does not mean they automatically get to have 30+ spots in the ensuing recruiting class.

They can still use a few tricks to help them out moving forward. For instance, schools are allowed to count up to five early enrollees towards the previous class, if there is space for them. Tennessee had a lot of early enrollees this year (around 10) so they can back count a certain number. It’s not completely clear how many, since they had 23 signees in the 2020 class, which would indicate two spots open. But we don’t know how many they back counted for that class, especially since they took four transfers.

We can somewhat safely assume that Tennessee will, at least, have room for more than 25 players in the 2022 class if they choose to do so. People smarter than me work inside the athletics department and can probably figure out a way to maximize the player intake to around 28 if they wanted. That’s not much different—but an extra player or two will likely be needed to fill some critical spots on the team. Especially with the recent transfers causing an imbalance on the roster.

Though, small caveat...the NCAA is dragging its feet on elaborating how the team numbers will function in light of the extra year being given to seniors. It’s insane that there’s no official word on how the scholarship counts will work. But that’s the NCAA for you.

I also don’t expect NCAA restrictions to immediately apply to the 2022 class.

Questions

#1: What does the QB board looks like?

Tennessee got hit with a 1-2 punch early in the cycle. Not only did the 5-star in-state option Ty Simpson commit to Alabama, but their assumed No. 2 quarterback Sam Horn surprised everyone with a commitment to Missouri. Simpson’s decision was expected. Horn’s was not. It was a stark reminder of how Tennessee is recruiting behind the eight ball.

Now the QB board is anyone’s guess. They’ll still recruit both Simpson and Horn, but it’s unlikely either will flip to Tennessee. Horn is the more likely of the two.

There is a chance Tennessee elects to take a “project” quarterback for this cycle, rather than go for a top recruit who is unlikely to join. It makes sense, especially if they feel comfortable with the current room. You won’t beat bigger schools right now if they want a quarterback and have a legitimate offer extended. It’s best to take a slight risk and go for a guy with high upside, who might not have a laundry list of top-25 teams going after him.

I’d look to someone like 3-star Destin Wade (TN), 3-star Tevin Carter (TN), 3-star Tayven Jackson (IN), or 4-star Braden Davis (DE) as the likely targets. All four of those players are more on the project side, but all four have enough talent to turn into something special down the road. Tennessee wouldn’t be battling blue bloods for them either—at least not at this point in the cycle.

#2: How will the OL recruiting play out?

Heupel’s offense means different type of linemen are needed to run it. Any time you have an up-tempo attack, the linemen need to be a bit on the lighter side, and require a different type of conditioning. It’s not a small change, since the basis of your offense relies on a group that can quickly recover, sprint to the line, know what their blocking duties are in a pinch, and more.

It’s fair to question if any of the current linemen on roster are built for this. They are going from a molasses-speed Jim Chaney offense, to one of the fastest in the sport. It’s going to be a question of scheme fit and straight up willingness to play within the system. Any transfers out of this group after spring would not be surprising.

As for the recruiting? It’s too early to tell how Heupel and offensive line coach Glen Elarbee will construct their OL classes. We will break it down more as they get guys committed.

#3: How will the extended dead period affect the class?

Recently, the NCAA announced they were extending the recruiting dead period through May 31st. A dead period means coaches cannot have face-to-face contact with recruits or their parents, and they cannot go and watch their athletic competitions. They can still call and talk to both. Recruiting has largely been shut down since the start of the coronavirus pandemic all the way back in March 2020, which has left plenty of programs scrambling to try and figure it out.

There’s some expectation that the extended dead period might “even the playing field” in some regards. A lot of kids haven’t been able to go on college campuses yet, and their only discussions with college coaches are over the phone. There’s only so much a coach can do in that environment.

If that’s closer to the truth, Heupel and his staff still have a bit of time of time to discuss offers and other recruiting pitches to recruits, since the earliest they could come to campus (officially) would be summer. That’s a better situation than getting a job in February and immediately trying to convince a kid why he should come to Knoxville rather than the 3 other campuses he’s already planned out. If everyone is “delayed”, that benefits the people running behind the pack.

However, this could also be a detriment in a myriad of ways. Especially if Heupel simply isn’t as convincing a coach without an on field product. In that case, recruits simply won’t have reason to keep the door open for Tennessee—and if you’re a top-300 or so recruit, chances are you want to narrow down your list and get along with the process. All you know is Tennessee fired Jeremy Pruitt, might be getting sanctioned, and has a former UCF coach. Why disrupt your process for that?

Bold Prediction: The 2022 Tennessee class is going to be rough

There’s no way around it. If the Volunteers want to have a decent recruiting class for 2022—a class that can keep them afloat in the SEC—they will need to massively overperform on the field. Whatever win expectations you have for the team currently, double it. Because that’s what they need to have a chance at a decent recruiting class.

It’s really not Heupel’s fault either. He’s not a dynamite recruiter, but even a head coach known for recruiting prowess would struggle under these conditions. Tennessee isn’t even sure if they’ll have a full number of scholarships available in the future, since a looming investigation is revolving around recruiting violations by the previous staff. It’s hard to understate just how poor Tennessee’s reputation is right now in the high school ranks.

That, unfortunately, does not get fixed in one year. You can never say never, but very few fans expect Tennessee’s season to play out anything better than 6-6 at this point. That’s not going to be enough to salvage what will likely be a very rough class for the Volunteers. I’d wager they finish outside the top-20 when it is all said and done.

It hurts. The in-state talent pool for 2022 is deeper than it’s been in a very long time. Enough that it’s gaining comparisons to the North Carolina class of 2021. So naturally, Tennessee has managed to find itself in a situation where they can’t take advantage of it.

File this one under yet another stroke of bad luck for the program that has endured a seemingly endless number of them for the past 14 years.