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Midterm Report Card: Grading Tennessee’s 2023 recruiting class before the season starts

Evaluating where Tennessee can improve, and where they’ve succeeded.

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

Tennessee’s 2022 regular season begins this Thursday, ending the grueling eight months that we call “the offseason”. Thankfully for Tennessee fans, this offseason was chock full of good news on the football recruiting front, and the Volunteers now boast 21 overall commits.

If you’ve paid even a little bit of attention over the summer, you realize just how impressive Tennessee’s class already is. It ranks just outside the top-10 according the 247Sports Team Rankings, and it’s fueled by some top tier talent: Six of their commits are in the top-150. That would be the most top-150 players in a Tennessee class since 2015 (should their rankings hold). None of these guys can sign until December, so there’s still some time until we can truly give a final grade on the class.

But with 21 commits already pledged, we can start thinking about what else Tennessee might need, and where they have already hit the mark. We will do another grade for a final report card after signing day in February 2023. For this one, we are assuming that all those listed will indeed sign with Tennessee. Keep in mind there will also be transfer portal movement later on.

Quarterback: A+

5-star QB Nicholaus Iamaleava

No surprises here. Tennessee grabbed 5-star Nicholaus Iamaleava, who has an argument to be the No. 1 player in the country—not just the quarterback position. That’s what we like to call a “gigantic recruiting victory”.

Running Back: C

3-star RB Will Stallings

This position is hard to grade since Tennessee’s staff hasn’t really honed in on it. They got two of their main targets last year with 4-star Justin Williams-Thomas and 3-star speedster Dylan Sampson.

Now that the running back room has plenty of young talent, there was no need to be aggressive with taking players early in this class. It was a better use of time to be picky and try to get a clear headliner of the group, rather than a handful of “depth” guys. The Volunteers did take a flyer on 3-star Will Stallings, who impressed at one of their summer camps. Besides him however, Tennessee had their sights set on more proven quantities. Tennessee ended up missing on 4-star Jeremiah Cobb (Auburn) and 4-star Roderick Robinson (UCLA), so that’s why this position gets the grade it does. Tennessee will still recruit these guys of course, but we aren’t willing to bet on any flips right now.

I would not give this grade the same weight as I would the others. There’s still a lot of time, and it’s a position where your options in the portal will probably be bountiful.

Wide Receiver: B+

4-star ATH Cam Seldon
3-star WR Nathan Leacock
3-star WR Nate Spillman

For the purposes of this article, we will treat 4-star Cam Seldon as a wide receiver, since that is where most expect him to start at. That also means the wide receiver group itself gets a pretty good mark. Seldon headlines the group as a potential future 5-star, and the group is rounded out by an intriguing prospect in 3-star Nathan Leacock, as well as a project take in 3-star Nate Spillman. Tennessee is still not done—or, at least, they don’t want to be. The Volunteers are still hoping for one more of their top targets to fill out the class.

The reason this grade isn’t higher is due to some misses earlier in the cycle. Tennessee went after 4-star Kyler Kasper, who committed to Oregon, and they also felt good about 5-star Carnell Tate—but Ohio State swooped in and got him. They were also after Florida commit and 4-star Aidan Mizell, but they were well aware that he was a longshot. To top it all off, 4-star Ayden Williams committed to Ole Miss just two weeks ago. He was probably the top remaining target on the board.

One name to keep an eye on is 4-star Traylon Ray. His recruitment has started to pick up steam in recent weeks, although it sounds like a lot of teams are slow playing him at the moment. Could Tennessee make a push later on? Perhaps.

Some have wondered if Jalin Hyatt’s younger brother Devin Hyatt will get a look. While I’m sure Tennessee is keeping tabs on how he progresses, Devin’s stock has declined due to a bad year at IMG, coupled with injuries. It’s totally possible he has a resurgence once healthy, but a lot of top teams have decided to look elsewhere.

Tight End: A-

4-star TE Ethan Davis

It’s easy to forget, but Tennessee’s first big splash on the 2023 recruiting trail predated Iamaleava. It was actually top-100 prospect Ethan Davis, out of Collins Hill High School in Georgia. He’s the prototypical modern tight end, who is ultra athletic and could reasonably make a career at wide receiver. This might be one of the more underrated grabs of the class, if that’s possible. Tennessee really needs more tight ends on the roster to give themselves some comfortable depth. Their current roster consists of three scholarship tight ends in total, two of whom will be gone after this next year. Ethan Davis is a fantastic grab by any measure, which is why this class gets an A- grade. It can be an A+ if the Volunteers get one more tight end prospect they like.

Offensive Line: B

4-star T Shamurad Umarov
3-star T Ayden Bussell

This position group is looking much better than it once looked after Tennessee missed on high priority target Francis Mauigoa. Tennessee really thought they had Mauigoa locked in, but a late push from Miami and Mario Cristobal proved too much to handle. After that, it didn’t look great.

But Tennessee struck back with a tremendous get in 4-star offensive tackle Shamurad Umarov. While he is not a surefire 5-star, I really think Umarov is underrated. 247Sports seems to agree, since they recently placed him as a top-150 player. He is a legit left tackle that has all the makings of a multi-year starter.

Beyond that, Tennessee does have some other guys who they like in the trenches. 3-star tackle Ayden Bussell is a good piece, and he too has an argument for being a bit overlooked by the services. I think he’d be more well regarded if he was ranked solely as an interior guy.

It’s also going to be interesting to see how 4-star athlete Trevor Duncan transitions to college. We will talk more about him in the defensive line section, since that’s where he will start, but I mentioned him here because there is also a good chance he plays on the offensive line in college.

Tennessee unfortunately missed out on 4-star tackle Stanton Ramil recently. Ramil was probably their best chance at another bookend piece for the offensive line class. The Volunteers will go after some others, but there’s not many routes for this class to necessarily boost its grade.

Defensive Line: A+

4-star Edge Chandavian Bradley
4-star Edge Caleb Herring
4-star ATH Trevor Duncan
3-star DL Tyree Weathersby
3-star DL Nathan Robinson

The Volunteers grabbed their top two targets on the edge for the 2023 cycle: 4-star Chandavian Bradley and 4-star Caleb Herring. Both are top-100 players with NFL ceilings. Those two alone would make this an A- grade. What boosts it to an A+ is the quality depth that Tennessee has grabbed behind them. While they may not all be blue chippers, there is a lot to like in the three other defensive linemen in the class.

The lone other blue chip is the aforementioned Duncan. He’s got the exact borderline measurements where he could either slim down and play as a defensive end, or bulk up and play as a defensive tackle. Or even bulk up and play at offensive guard. For now he will stick on the defensive line, and he’ll give the staff an interesting versatility to play around with.

Behind him are 3-star Tyree Weathersby and 3-star Nathan Robinson. Both are huge prospects that have also have lot of flexibility in where they can lineup. Tennessee is pretty much done here for the cycle, so they can focus on locking in the guys they do have committed. Although, if someone like 4-star Tomarrion Parker wanted in, I don’t think they’d turn him down.

Linebacker: C+

3-star LB Jalen Smith
3-star LB Jeremiah Tellander

It was hard deciding between giving this position a B- or a C+ grade. I ultimately went with the latter, even if I think Tennessee found a real gem in 3-star Jalen Smith. The hyper productive and athletic Smith may not be as highly ranked, but the potential jumps off the screen. The Volunteers also got a solid prospect in 3-star Jeremiah Tellander, although he does have some pretty obvious limitations.

Tennessee actually did have some highly rated prospects in the crosshairs— they just happened to lose out to some bigger programs. I am mainly referring to JUCO 4-star linebacker Justin Jefferson, who committed to Alabama, and 4-star CJ Allen, who committed to Georgia. There was also a push for someone like 4-star Tony Rojas, who ended up with Penn State. Tennessee’s options here have dwindled if they want a immediate difference maker.

Cornerback: A-

4-star CB Jordan Matthews
4-star CB Rickey Gibson
3-star CB Cristian Conyer

To give you a little behind the curtains peek: I write some of these articles over the span of a few weeks. Sometimes, the situation rapidly changes, and I just have to start from scratch with certain segments.

This was especially true with the cornerback group. Just three weeks ago, I had this group at a D+ grade. This was when Cristian Conyer was the only commit in the class, and at that point Tennessee was not the favorite for either Rickey Gibson or Jordan Matthews. I had even typed a line saying that Tennessee’s lack of realistic options going forward was a huge issue.

Well, crisis averted. Turns out that you really don’t need that many options if you can just land the ones right in front of you. Both Gibson and Matthews have No. 1 corner potential, and they are hands down the two best cornerback prospects Tennessee has signed since Alontae Taylor.

I have been sounding the alarm for years that Tennessee‘s cornerback room just isn’t that good—it suffers from a lack of talent and a lack of depth. The Volunteers have now responded by assembling arguably their best cornerback class in at least six or seven years. Let’s hope they can cross the finish line and get all the signatures on a dotted line by the end of the cycle. One more solid prospect would push this to an A+ grade.

Safety: B

4-star S Sylvester Smith
3-star S John Slaughter
3-star S Jack Luttrell

Tennessee has three safeties in this class, so I don’t expect them to add another one from here on out. The headliner is 4-star Sylvester Smith, who had a lot of interested teams. Tennessee also has 3-star John Slaughter out of Southaven, and 3-star Jack Luttrell, who committed very early in the cycle. The Volunteers didn’t really need a superstar here, although they may have liked if they could’ve gotten another safety closer to Smith’s status.

Preseason Class Grade: A-

The question from here on out is where Tennessee will go to finish out the class. They’ll still be recruiting some of the remaining higher ranked guys on the board, but I wouldn’t point to a single one at this moment and say that Tennessee is the favorite. There’s a full season to go, so let’s not marry ourselves to the idea that the Volunteers have no avenues to improve the grades on this report card. It should also be noted that they may be saving a fair amount of spots for transfers down the line.

Any way you slice it, this is a tremendous class as it stands. It mixes a good amount of top end talent with quality depth. There’s no position listed where I am confused or worried about what Tennessee has committed. If recruiting ended today and classes were forced to sign, the Volunteers would have very few concerns heading into the next cycle. Now, it’s about closing strong and making sure there’s no signing day surprises.