KNOXVILLE – The last year was certainly eventful for Tennessee football.
There was a 5-7 campaign on the field that was filled with twists and turns, the hiring and firing of much-anticipated defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri, the dismissal of coach Derek Dooley and much of his staff and the hiring of Butch Jones and his staff.
It was eventful in recruiting as well. The Vols signed impact junior college players Cordarrelle Patterson and Daniel McCullers in 2012 as part of a class that ranked around 20th nationally, according to most major recruiting services.
With Dooley out and Jones in, it’s time to push the reset button on recruiting. The Vols are clinging to 15 commitments, most of whom are solid to Tennessee. Even though Jones and his staff are playing from behind in this recruiting cycle, they can’t afford for this to be a bad class. The Vols are in need of instant upgrades at multiple positions.
With the calendar now turned to 2013, here’s a wish list of some of the top recruits that the Vols will be pursuing over the next month as National Signing Day (Feb. 6) approaches.
1. Safety Vonn Bell (5-11, 190; Rossville, Ga.)
Why they need him: The overall speed and athleticism of the secondary needs a major upgrade. Bell brings plenty of both to the position. Though not technically a Tennessee native, Bell lives just south of Chattanooga and signing him would be a major coup for Jones as he hopes to secure as much top local talent as possible.
Top competition: Ohio State, Alabama
2. Running back Derrick Green (6-0, 220; Richmond, Va.)
Why they need him: The Vols improved their rushing attack in 2012, but they lack an elite power runner. Green has the potential to be just that in college. Rising junior Marlin Lane and rising senior Rajion Neal are capable backs for the next year or two, but SEC teams such as LSU (Jeremy Hill), Alabama (T.J. Yeldon) and Georgia (Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall) have shown what kind of impact a freshman back can have in his first year.
Top competition: Michigan, Auburn
3. Wide receiver Marquez North (6-3, 205; Charlotte, NC)
Why they need him: Justin Hunter is gone and it’s widely assumed that Cordarrelle Patterson will follow the same path to the NFL draft. Zach Rogers will be gone as well. That means the Vols need instant help at receiver, and North can help provide it. He would have a chance to start from Week 1.
Top competition: North Carolina, Clemson
4. Defensive end Carl Lawson (6-3, 250; Alpharetta, Ga.)
Why they need him: It’s been several years since the Vols have featured a feared pass rusher. Lawson, who is currently committed to Auburn, has the capability to be that. He would be a perfect fit as a 4-3, pass-rushing defensive end in defensive coordinator John Jancek’s scheme. The coaching change at Auburn will make this an interesting battle all the way to signing day.
Top competition: Auburn, Clemson, UNC, Ole Miss
5. Tight end Brandon Vandenburg (6-6, 260; Palm Desert, Calif.)
Why they need him: Vandenburg represents the need to add immediate help at tight end. The Vols will lose virtually all of their production from that position with the departure of Mychal Rivera. Brendan Downs and Justin Meredith both return, though neither is a proven top option. Chauntez Jackson is already committed, but the Vols would like to add somebody like Vandenburg, who holds more than 20 major offers and could potentially start immediately.
Top competition: Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Nebraska
6. Linebacker Trey Johnson (6-1, 225; Lawrenceville, Ga.)
Why they need him: A.J. Johnson is the only proven linebacker returning completely healthy in 2013. Curt Maggitt should be back, but he battled multiple injuries in 2012, including a torn ACL late in the season. Beyond those two, that position is fairly thin. Any top freshmen that come in will have a chance to play in 2013 and likely start in 2014 and beyond. The former Auburn commitment has ties to UT linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen, who recruited him for the Tigers this past year.
Top competition: Ohio State, Auburn, Florida, Southern Cal
7. Offensive lineman Reeve Koehler (6-3, 310; Honolulu, Hawaii)
Why they need him: The offensive line looks solid for 2013, but it could possibly lose every single starter after next season. That could be an attractive option for a top prospect like Koehler, who could come in for one year, learn the system and compete for a starting job in his second season. He was reportedly leaning toward UT under the previous staff, so Jones and offensive line coach Don Mahoney have to impress him again.
Top competition: Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Washington, Arizona State, Georgia
8. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey (6-0, 190; Nashville, Tenn.)
Why they need him: He’s probably the biggest stretch on this list. The Vols would love to convince the state’s top player to come help boost their struggling secondary, but they have to overcome his current commitment to USC along with the interest he’s getting from many others. Getting Ramsey isn’t likely, but it would be the steal of the year for Jones and his staff.
Top competition: USC, Florida, Alabama, Oregon, Mississippi State
9. Wide receiver Eddie Jackson (6-1, 180; Lauderdale Lakes, Fla.)
Why they need him: Upgrading speed all over the roster is a priority for this recruiting class. Jackson, though needing to add bulk, is one of the fastest receivers available this year. With former commitment Camion Patrick headed to junior college, Tennessee is left with just two receiver commitments – Paul Harris and Josh Smith. Jones and his staff will want to add at least one or two more to help make up for the massive loss of production from this season.
Top competition: Florida State, LSU
10. Defensive end Davin Bellamy (6-5, 240; Atlanta, Ga.)
Why they need him: There aren’t many true 4-3 defensive-end types on UT’s roster. Bellamy is currently committed to Florida State, so UT has some work to do, but it would love to add a player with his size and athleticism to the mix. Getting him on campus for a visit in January will be the first task.
Top competition: FSU, Virginia Tech
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS