KNOXVILLE – The ink on 21 national letters of intent in Tennessee’s signing class is dry. Coach Butch Jones wrapped up his first signing class in Knoxville with some hits and some misses, but it’s a class he can build on now that he’ll have a full year to work on the next one.
The national rankings were mixed:
247Sports Composite: 25
Here’s Nooga.com’s position-by-position grade and analysis of the players the Vols added on Wednesday:
With just two scholarship players returning at this point, Jones nailed this position with the addition of Riley Ferguson and Joshua Dobbs. Ferguson was handpicked by former offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, but stuck with Jones and new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian after the transition. Dobbs, ranked by some recruiting services as a top-10 quarterback nationally, could end up being the steal of the class after flipping from Arizona State to the Vols on Wednesday. He’s got the combination of intelligence, athleticism and arm strength to be a starting quarterback in the SEC.
Running backs: D
The Vols fell short here. Jabo Lee, a three-star running back out of Dillon, S.C., was the only signee at a position that needs both depth and an overall talent upgrade. Lee does have some upside, but there’s little doubt that the coaches bemoaned missing out on top-ranked Derrick Green, who selected Michigan. They also whiffed on several other four-star targets such as Johnathan Ford (Auburn), Derrick Henry (Alabama) and Alvin Kamara (Alabama). Lee will help in the depth department, but look for running back to be an enormous priority in 2014.
Wide receivers: A-
Adding four-star Tyler Boyd (Pittsburgh) on signing day would’ve made this group about perfect, but they’ll gladly settle for the talented quartet they did sign. The highlight of the bunch is MarQuez North, a 6-4, 215-pounder out of Charlotte, N.C. He brings the kind of size and speed that could make him an elite SEC receiver within two or three years. He’s joined by Vol legacy Ryan Jenkins, early enrollee Paul Harris and local product Josh Smith, all of whom will be competing for playing time in their first couple of years on campus.
Tight ends: B-
The Vols needed some depth here and they got it with A.J. Branisel and junior-college transfer Woody Quinn. Quinn is the wildcard of the two. A former college volleyball player, he made the transition back to the gridiron after not playing in over five years. He has impressive size (6-6, 260) and athleticism, but will he be able to translate that on the field in the SEC? Branisel is in the mold of current UT tight end Brendan Downs, a player who can be an effective blocker and make some plays in the passing game.
Offensive line: D
The three additions – Brett Kendrick, Dylan Wiesman and Austin Sanders – all have the potential to grow into SEC-caliber players. The problem is that it could take them two or three years and the Vols might not have that much time. All five current starters could be gone by 2014 and this class will be part of the group that must replace them. With that in mind, some of the misses such as tackle Dan Skipper (Arkansas), Chongo Kondolo (Nebraska) and Reeve Koehler (Arkansas) could hurt in a few years.
Defensive line: C-
It could haven been much worse. The Vols held on to highly-ranked defensive end Jason Carr out of Memphis and added three-star ends Malik Brown and Jaylen Miller on signing day. That helped add some depth on the end, but they failed to add any defensive tackles after former commitment Ben Bradley ended up signing with Auburn. With six defensive linemen scheduled to graduate after next season, Tennessee fell a little short in this area.
Corey Vereen, the lone linebacker signee, has a chance to grow into a dependable SEC linebacker. They missed out on four stars Trey Johnson (Ohio State)and E.J. Levenberry (Florida State) in the final weeks, though. This will be another position they will need to hit hard in the next two years to make up for deficiencies from this year and last.
Defensive backs: B
This easily could’ve been an “A+” had Jones been able to land five-star Vonn Bell, but the Vols lost out to Ohio State. Still, there’s a good amount of upside to the five players – Lemond Johnson, Riyahd Jones, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Cameron Sutton and Malik Foreman – who are expected to end up in the secondary. There should be an overall upgrade in size and speed. Jones and Reeves-Maybin are two to keep an eye on for early playing time.
There are some players and position groups to really like in this class. Overall, the Vols need to do better to rebuild the talent level to compete with the likes of Alabama, Florida, LSU, Georgia and South Carolina. Missing on a few guys is understandable. The coaching staff only had 31 days on the trail to wrap up this signing class. But that’s not a catch-all excuse. Auburn, a team with a new staff as well, finished above the Vols in team rankings. The same can be said for Arkansas (per the 247Sports Composite Ranking). This isn’t the type of class that will set the Vols way back, but it sets 2014 and 2015 up as crucial recruiting years if Jones wants to make up ground on the rest of the SEC.
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga