Tennessee Football Recruiting: 5 Positions Where Vols Are Stacked
Tennessee's vaunted football recruiting class is loaded with talent.
That's not to say the Volunteers' current haul of prospects for the 2014 class is devoid of holes. However, this class—currently ranked third by 247Sports—is exactly the kind of recruiting resurgence Butch Jones needs in his first full year on the trail to help get UT back in the SEC picture.
A team needing offensive playmakers and defensive speed has them on the way. While there's no way for Tennessee to meet every need after Derek Dooley and Lane Kiffin gutted the depth and talent on the roster, Jones has gone a long way in addressing the issues that have led to three consecutive bowl-less seasons.
If everything stays the way it is right now (it won't), 57 of UT's 85 scholarship players at the time of the first snap of Jones' second season will have been recruited by him. The 2013 class was 23 deep, while the Vols now have 33 commitments for the '14 class.
There likely will be a few defections and additions to this year's class with still a couple of months left until national signing day, so that is a changing number. But the bottom line is Jones is flipping the roster as quickly as possible.
If Tennessee can hang on to everybody currently in the fold, this team will improve dramatically from a speed, talent and depth standpoint as early as next year. This is just the kind of class the Vols need to get back into the race.
Recruiting rankings aren't everything, but if these high-profile recruits live up to their billing, the Vols have a star-studded group on their hands, and they'll be back in a bowl game in 2014.
Let's take a look at five positions where this class is currently stacked.
Quotes were gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Star rankings courtesy of 247Sports.
Of the many big needs for the Volunteers this year, one must was that UT had to upgrade its athleticism on the second level of its defense.
Butch Jones has taken care of that by securing verbal pledges from a group of linebackers who look poised to come in and immediately compete for playing time.
UT starting linebackers Dontavis Sapp and Brent Brewer are out of eligibility, and junior All-SEC linebacker A.J. Johnson has not yet made a decision on whether he'll return for his senior year. So, there are repetitions up for grabs, even with the return of Curt Maggitt, who missed all of 2013 recovering from a knee injury.
Chris Weatherd is the nation's No. 1 junior college outside linebacker, according to 247Sports, and he has the speed and size to be exactly the type of immediate-impact player the Vols need.
Legacy linebacker Dillon Bates—son of Vols and Dallas Cowboys great Bill Bates—was another major recruiting win, as he chose UT over Alabama and Florida back in the summer. Bates has a very projectable frame and is excellent in coverage, which is something UT lacked this year from its 'backers.
Atlanta-area 4-star linebacker Kevin Mouhon recently led his team to a state championship, and he has the ability to star in the middle of the defense. The Vols also are excited about 4-star inside linebacker Jakob Johnson, a German product who hasn't been playing football very long but has a wealth of talent.
Though Alabama prep star Gavin Bryant reportedly has some academic work to take care of, according to GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required), he is a big-time athlete who would provide a boost to the Vols.
One of Eric Berry's twin brothers, Elliott, is listed by 247Sports at 5'11", 191 pounds and is expected to grow into a linebacker. Jerome Dews, a 3-star athlete, could either play linebacker or wide receiver, but he could use some time in the weight room.
UT has strength in numbers at a position of major need, and the Vols have done everything they can to outfit Tommy Thigpen with a lot of weapons to reload the position.
The Vols desperately need some impact playmakers at wide receiver, and they've been able to address that major deficiency through recruiting.
One of the team's three biggest current commits is 4-star in-state receiver Josh Malone, who had offers from virtually everybody in the nation and ultimately chose Tennessee over Clemson and Georgia.
Malone gives the Vols a silky-smooth target who could start opposite Marquez North, and he'll enroll in January and be ready to compete.
Another potential star who signed with the Vols on JUCO national signing day on Wednesday, per 247Sports, is Lavon Pearson, whose HUDL highlights are some of the most impressive you'll ever watch. Though his competition was seriously in question, Pearson's athleticism isn't.
He is a 6'1", 180-pound receiver who should battle Malone, Jason Croom and Josh Smith for the other starting spot.
The first commit of this year's class, Vic Wharton, is being recruited to play the slot receiver position and is coming off a dynamite senior season for Independence High in Franklin, Tenn. Jerome Dews could play offense as well.
Jumbo legacy receiver Neiko Creamer recently told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required) that UT coaches are still telling him that he'll start out at receiver despite being 6'3", 220 pounds and having the ability to play tight end or defense as well.
Todd Kelly Jr. was one of the first bricks in this recruiting class' foundation, committing back on March 10 of this year and setting off a flurry of pledges that week that culminated with 5-star running back Jalen Hurd.
Because of his early decision, TKJr hasn't received the fanfare of some other recruits, but he is an elite talent who has the ability to come in and beat out LaDarrell McNeil to start alongside Brian Randolph on the back level.
Kelly—whose father was a standout defender for the Vols as well—played for The Webb School in Knoxville and wrapped up his senior season by winning the state's prestigious Mr. Football award in his classification.
The defensive back had offers from Alabama, Southern Cal, Florida, Ohio State and virtually everybody else in the nation, but he chose to carry on the family tradition and become a Vol.
The Vols' other safety commit is hard-hitting Georgia product Cortez McDowell, who chose UT over Auburn, Georgia, Florida State and others. At 6'1", 200 pounds, McDowell has the physicality and frame to come in and play, but it would benefit him to be able to have a year in the weight room.
With UT's lack of depth at the safety spot, both may come in and contribute.
RaShaan Gaulden is also listed by 247Sports as a safety, but it's likely he starts out at nickel back for the Vols.
Of all the positions where the Vols struggled in 2013, perhaps there was no weaker play than at tight end.
Junior Brendan Downs battled nagging injuries and was ineffective as a starter all year. He struggled blocking and rarely caught passes. Though true freshman A.J. Branisel showed some flashes toward the middle of the season, a torn anterior cruciate ligament derailed his season and put 2014 in question.
It was a necessity that the Vols recruited some difference-makers at the position, and they jumped into the Midwest and accomplished it with the pledges of Daniel Helm from Illinois and Ethan Wolf of Ohio.
The duo gives UT tight ends coach Mark Elder one of the top tight end duos in the country.
Helm is a pass-catching star who had a great camp circuit over the summer. He ultimately chose the Vols over Ole Miss, Michigan and others, and he sees the opportunity to come in and start.
"I want to go to the NFL, and I feel like, in this offense, I had a great opportunity to do a lot of things," Helm told Bleacher Report. "No offense to anybody there, but I think I've got a great opportunity to come in and play if I work hard."
Wolf is more of a blocking tight end, but he isn't a slouch when it comes to catching passes, either. They complement each other well, and both are expected to be midterm enrollees.
Tennessee's struggles rushing the passer have been evident over the recent program doldrums.
This past year, the Vols needed a record-setting day by Corey Miller in the season finale against Kentucky to move out of dead last in the SEC in sacks.
Butch Jones believes he has a young star in freshman Corey Vereen, but he still needed plenty of help. That was found on the recruiting trail with the pledges of high schoolers Dewayne Hendrix, Joe Henderson and Dimarya Mixon.
Most importantly, the Vols have a lot of able, versatile bodies at the position, and they should be able to find some pass-rushers out of that large pool of talent. It appears many of those guys can bulk up and play inside or stay on the edge.
This position was even more loaded before Wednesday's disappointing finale to JUCO national signing day when DaVonte Lambert, the nation's No. 1 JUCO strong-side defensive end, according to 247Sports, flipped from UT to Auburn, per Mike Herndon of AL.com.
That was a massive blow, but besides kicker, this position is still the fifth-most stacked on the field in this class.
Hendrix had offers from some of the top programs in the country, but his family all were Tennessee fans originally from West Tennessee, and UT secured his commitment.
Henderson and Hendrix are strictly edge-rushers, and they'll all be needed immediately. The Vols likely will scour the ranks for another end with Lambert's defection.