Tennessee Football: Ranking Volunteers' Top 10 Recruiting Targets for 2015
Tennessee head coach Butch Jones signed a banner class in 2014, so what's he going to do for an encore in the next recruiting cycle?
That's what everybody around Knoxville is wondering after the Vols' class of 32 players finished ranked seventh in the 247Sports Composite and higher in other services.
The Vols are already in the thick of things for a lot of the nation's top talent again for 2015, and the coaching staff has been busy hosting players and sending letters as a wish list starts to take shape.
One thing is certain: The number UT signs won't approach the massive haul from this season.
Jones told the Knoxville Tipoff Club a couple of weeks ago that he expected the Vols to be able to sign 18-22 players in the 2015 class, though that number is always in "flux", according to the Knoxville News Sentinel's Evan Woodbery.
So far, the Vols have received verbal commitments from eight players following Saturday's pledge of in-state long-snapper Riley Lovingood, according to GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required).
To keep its recent momentum going, UT must land some of its premier targets.
So, who are those players the Vols covet? Let's take a look at UT's top early targets for the '15 cycle.
All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports, unless otherwise noted.
10. Eric Swinney, RB
After Tennessee struck gold at running back in 2014, signing Jalen Hurd, Derrell Scott and Treyvon Paulk, running back isn't a huge priority in this year's class.
That doesn't mean the Volunteers will refrain from recruiting the nation's best.
The Vols already have offered running backs like Taj Griffin, Bryce Love, Michael Weber, Rocky Reid and others. Perhaps the young man at the top of that list is 5'10", 188-pound 4-star Eric Swinney of Tyrone, Ga.
UT has gone into Sandy Creek High School and pulled a running back before (see: Rajion Neal), and Butch Jones would like nothing more than to beat out teams such as the Auburn Tigers, Ole Miss Rebels and in-state Georgia Bulldogs for Swinney's services.
Swinney has a great combination of power and speed, and he seems to be the perfect fit for what Jones wants at running back. Auburn has made him a priority, though, and 75 percent of his Crystal Ball predictions point toward the Tigers.
Tennessee may have a better shot at guys like Reid, Weber and Love, but the Vols would take Swinney in a second, and he has been on campus multiple times already.
9. Roquan Smith, OLB
One place where the Vols are still a bit lean even after a 2014 hefty recruiting class is at outside linebacker.
Getting a star player like 6'2", 205-pound Montezuma, Ga., linebacker Roquan Smith would go a long way in solving that shortage of depth.
Smith hails from an area that historically has been an Auburn-Georgia battleground, and those two schools appear to be at the top of the heap for the speedy 'backer in the early going, with 90 percent of his Crystal Ball picks in favor of the Dawgs.
However, after a weekend visit to Knoxville to check out UT's spring practice opening couple of days, the nation's No. 5-ranked outside linebacker told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required) that he is "really considering" Tennessee.
It was a pretty good visit, man. I'm going to make sure I consider Tennessee a lot when I make my top five or six. It's too early to say (whether the Vols will be in it), but I'm real strong on Tennessee right now.
There is a possibility that Smith could be an early enrollee, which would be another major plus, but UT made a favorable early impression. Though he's a bit of a long-shot, the Vols are going to keep recruiting him until he makes a decision.
8. Mark Fields, CB
Tennessee extended Mark Fields one of his first couple of offers—and his first from a major program—last year.
Since then, the 5'10", 183-pound cornerback from Cornelius, N.C., has seen his stock soar.
The Vols had Fields on campus last year for a camp, but he hasn't been back to Knoxville recently, despite UT ramping up the pressure on him, along with other programs across the Southeast.
Fields is an athletic, speedy cornerback who is going to be one of the nation's top players at his position before the year is over. The 247Sports Composite currently has him as the 11th-rated corner in the country.
While South Carolina is an overwhelming favorite currently for Fields, LSU and Clemson are also in the picture. The Vols need to get him back on campus to get back in the mix.
While players like Ugo Amadi and Micah Abernathy may be more realistic targets in a cycle where UT would like to sign two corners, Fields remains an elite target Tennessee will attempt to recruit until he commits.
7. Ricky DeBerry, OLB
Tennessee linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen had an incredible year recruiting for the Vols in the 2014 class, and the ace recruiter is in on plenty of several heavy hitters early on in '15.
Perhaps none is more coveted at the position Thigpen coaches than Richmond, Va., outside linebacker Ricky DeBerry, whom the Vols have made a priority for a long time.
At 6'2.5", 245 pounds, DeBerry has the size of an inside linebacker and could even grow into a defensive end. But he has the speed and athleticism to play on the outside as well. He has an incredibly high ceiling and is being recruiting by some of the nation's top programs.
Tennessee is among DeBerry's favorites, but so are nationally elite programs like Oklahoma and Ohio State, who has assigned long-time elite recruiter Larry Johnson to him.
DeBerry still seems wide-open, with 44 percent of his Crystal Ball predictions projecting him to be a Sooner.
The Vols currently sit at an 11 percent clip, but with Thigpen on the case and UT expected to get him back to campus toward the end of this week, according to Volquest's Paul Fortenberry (subscription required), they could find themselves right in the mix.
6. Shy Tuttle, DT
Once Butch Jones and crew got to Knoxville, the doors into the deep talent pool of North Carolina were blown wide open.
He closed the deal on Marquez North quickly once he got to UT, while keeping quarterback Riley Ferguson in the fold and following it up with Kendal Vickers.
Last year's deep class featured another couple of key commits in cornerback Emmanuel Moseley and elite running back Derrell Scott, who hailed from North Carolina.
The Vols have a ton of targets within the boundaries of their neighbors to the east in this year's deep, rich crop of Carolina talent. One of those main players is 5-star Lexington, N.C., native Shy Tuttle, who is a pure defensive tackle and one of the best big men in the country.
The 6'3", 315-pound mammoth recently got an Alabama offer, which pushed the Tide toward the top, along with the long-time favorite Tar Heels.
Tuttle expected to visit Knoxville a couple of weeks ago and couldn't because of a car accident, according to GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required). He told Callahan he anticipated a return trip, and the Vols were a team he was interested in.
UT is a bit of an outsider for Tuttle, who is the nation's No. 4 defensive tackle, but with UT's recent success in North Carolina, the Vols shouldn't be counted out of the heated race. There are more likely options at the position for UT, but Tuttle is one of the two best the Vols have a shot at.
5. Drew Richmond, OT
It's not every year that Tennessee can fill out a healthy portion of its offensive line class without going across state lines.
Thankfully for the Vols, 2015 is one of those years.
There is no bigger need in the class than offensive tackles, and UT already has one massive spot filled with Murfreesboro Oakland athletic tackle Jack Jones. Coalfield's Zach Stewart (a future guard) gave the Vols another in-state lineman with his early commitment as well.
Now, offensive line coach Don Mahoney will try to hit the trifecta by landing Drew Richmond. The 6'5", 315-pound Memphis University School standout already has offers from some of the nation's top programs.
Ohio State, Auburn, Alabama and Ole Miss appear to be early factors. Still, with Richmond a top priority for the Vols and with UT having a major ace up its sleeve with Richmond's buddy Charles Mosley committing in the '14 class, the Vols have a legit chance to sign the future franchise left tackle.
Back in late January, Richmond talked to GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required) about the Vols racking up in-state recently.
I mean, I just feel like it's a lot of Tennessee boys wanting to do this for our home. I feel a sense of doing it for my home, and all the other boys are doing it, too. I've been thinking about that. ... I mean, it's the hometown. I love this place. I love the state of Tennessee. I feel like being there would help me on past football.
According to the 247Sports Crystal Ball, the Vols have 59 percent of the early vote to land Richmond. Moving forward, Richmond is easily one of UT's top two in-state targets in this year's cycle. He will receive plenty of attention from the Vols between now and February 2015.
4. Kahlil McKenzie, DT
So far in his brief tenure at Tennessee, if Butch Jones wants a legacy, he's batting 1.000 in getting them to commit to the Volunteers.
A rich 2014 class full of players with family ties concluded with six prospects—Dillon Bates, Todd Kelly Jr., Vic Wharton, Neiko Creamer, Evan Berry, Elliott Berry—signing with Tennessee. Already in the '15 class, UT has a pledge from stud linebacker Cecil Cherry, who is a legacy.
One of the Vols' top remaining targets on their big board also holds a huge family tie to Tennessee. Concord (Calif.) De La Salle High 6'4", 309-pound defensive tackle Khalil McKenzie is the son of former UT defender Reggie McKenzie, who is now the general manager of the Oakland Raiders.
The Vols and Oklahoma Sooners, whom McKenzie grew up following, are currently split 50/50 on the Crystal Ball picks, but with Jones making McKenzie a major priority, the family ties to the program certainly gives UT an advantage.
The elder McKenzie is a Knoxville native and still follows Tennessee closely, which can only help the Vols to land the services of the nation's No. 11 DT, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.
If Tennessee lands McKenzie, it will go a long way in solving the interior issues. He is one target with instant-impact ability.
3. Zach Gentry, QB
Back when college football teams were just coming out of the dead period earlier this year, the first player Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian went to see was 6'6", 230-pound New Mexico gunslinger Zach Gentry.
Given Tennessee's desperate need to sign a quarterback (or two) in this class, Gentry emerged as an early favorite to be Bajakian's preference.
Gentry is huge, and he actually has a good bit of mobility for a player his size, no doubt reminding Butch Jones and Bajakian of a player they had back in their Central Michigan days: Record-setting quarterback Dan LeFevour.
While UT was one of Gentry's first major offers, other teams have followed suit. Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State really wants Gentry, and the Cowboys appear to be Tennessee's top competition.
Most recently, Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin extended the New Mexico signal-caller an offer.
Unlike most kids, Gentry didn't lose his mind when the Tide offered. Instead, he mentioned UA along with other teams to Bama Online's Charles Power (subscription required).
I'm going to talk to my dad a little more about it, but I think I'm going to try to get out to Tennessee for sure, and Oklahoma State. Those are some teams that offered me a while back that I'm interested in. I'm trying to figure it out, but want to try to get in three trips this spring. I think that's all we can do. Alabama is definitely a strong possibility for that.
Like most QBs, Gentry told Power he expects to announce before his senior season begins. If the Vols were to win the signature for his services, they could breathe a little easier thinking about the future of the position in Knoxville.
2. Torrance Gibson, QB
When you talk about immense potential and lofty ceilings, there are few quarterbacks in the 2015 class who can boast better projections than Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) signal-caller Torrance Gibson.
At 6'4", 200 pounds and with a 4.5 40-yard dash, Gibson is one of the most impressive athletes the position has seen in a couple of years. He is blazing fast and has incredible, unpolished tools.
While he doesn't have great accuracy or mechanics, Gibson is raw and uber-talented. He has plus size, arm strength and elusiveness, and those are the reasons why he's the nation's top-ranked dual-threat quarterback.
Simply put, everybody wants Gibson.
Like most teams around the country, Tennessee is enamored with his upside. The quarterback seems to reciprocate the love, at least on Twitter, filling his feed with praise of UT fans and the school.
Despite the social media love, Tennessee may be in the fringe group just outside of Gibson's top tier. For some time, Ohio State, Miami and LSU were three schools he mentioned a lot in interviews.
The Vols want to get deep in that race, but they need to get Gibson back on campus soon, or he'll remain a pipe dream.
1. Kyle Phillips, DE
The player Tennessee probably most covets in the 2015 class isn't a guy the Vols will have to go to the ends of the Earth to woo.
Hillsboro (Tenn.) defensive end Kyle Phillips is an absolute monster who is one of the best players in the state of Tennessee, as well as the country.
At 6'4", 255 pounds, Phillips has the size and athleticism to terrorize offensive linemen at the point of contact. With 4.61 speed, he can blow around the end as well.
He is simply the kind of polished, elite defensive end Tennessee has coveted for some time, and he has the potential to step right in and have a Carl Lawson-type impact in Knoxville.
It has been a long time since the state has produced a defensive end of his caliber.
While James Franklin was at Vanderbilt, the race for Phillips' signature appeared to be a Vols-Commodores battle. With Phillips' mother, Teresa, being a former VU women's basketball standout and current athletic director at Tennessee State, it wouldn't have been a reach for Phillips to remain in Nashville.
Now that Franklin is at Penn State, Tennessee is the overwhelming favorite to land Phillips, according to 247Sports' Crystal Ball.
Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Florida State and others all have offered Phillips, and UT will have to battle hard to get him in orange and white. If the Vols do, he is just the kind of centerpiece that would make the 2015 class a major success.