KNOXVILLE – With signing day now in the past and spring practice under a month away, Tennessee’s 2014 recruiting effort will soon begin shaping the future for the football program.
Fourteen of the new signees will be participating in spring practice with the rest scheduled to join just a few months later in the summer.
Here’s our position-by-position look at how much UT upgraded each spot with its heralded class of newcomers:
With needs piled up at virtually every position, and three scholarship underclassmen already on the roster, the Vols opted to pass on taking a scholarship signal-caller in this class. Knoxville native Devin Smith has accepted a preferred walk-on spot and the Vols will be back in the market for at least one – if not two – scholarship QBs in the 2015 class.
Running backs: A+
It’s hard to ask for much more here. Tennessee landed five-star, in-state standout Jalen Hurd early in the process, but didn’t stop there. Treyvon Paulk was added a few days later as a more speedy, complimentary back and despite a season-ending knee injury, he has the chance to be a good player later in his career. That would’ve been a solid class right there, but that was before adding four-star Derrell Scott late. Scott, one of the top-ranked all-purpose backs in the nation, chose to come to Tennessee over in-state South Carolina. Scott would’ve been the only back signed by the Gamecocks. He instead chose to join UT’s trio.
Wide receivers: A+
According to 247Sports, two of the top three signees in the class come at wide receiver – Josh Malone and junior college transfer Von Pearson. Those two have the potential to be difference makers and possibly Day 1 starters. Thrown in with returning starters Marquez North and Pig Howard in addition to some other role players, Tennessee has the makings of a potentially elite unit in a year or two. ‘Athletes’ Neiko Creamer and Vic Wharton also fit in at WR. Creamer is closer to tight end measurables at 6-foot-3, 223 pounds, so he brings size to the unit, while Wharton brings speed and versatility.
Tight ends: A
Daniel Helm and Ethan Wolf are both consensus top-20 TE prospects with Helm being ranked as high as second at the position by Rivals.com. Tennessee needs a lot of help here and it should get it with this duo. Helm is more the pass catcher and Wolf is a little stronger in blocking. There’s a chance that one or both could be more talented than UT’s current options.
Offensive line: B-
If there’s one area in the class that might have fallen a touch short, it’s the offensive line. The Vols signed three true O-linemen: Dontavius Blair, Coleman Thomas and Ray Raulerson. Blair, a junior college transfer, will likely be a Day 1 starter at tackle. That’s a lot to ask, but it’s the situation UT’s line is in after losing all five starters. Thomas, who is 6-foot-6 and about 310 pounds, likely ends up at tackle. Raulerson is getting some early looks at center and guard. Tennessee lost tackle Orlando Brown due to academic concerns. Charles Mosley and Jashon Robertson, two other signees, could play on either side of the ball. Expect at least one to end up on offense. UT could’ve used six or seven offensive linemen in this class, but, again, there simply wasn’t space for everything the Vols needed. The good news for UT is that Blair, Thomas and Raulerson all enrolled early and are getting a head start for 2014. All three could be in the two-deep depth chart.
Defensive line: A
Like the offensive line, the D-line needed to be completely restocked and Butch Jones and DL coach Steve Stripling delivered. They signed at least six players who will play up front with Mosley and/or Robertson also being possibilities. They added all types of players. Ends Joe Henderson and Dewayne Hendrix give the Vols some much-needed speed and athleticism on the edge. Both could be feared SEC pass rushers in time. Derek Barnett and Dimarya Mixon bring versatility. They both have the size/athleticism combo that could make them strongside ends or smaller DTs. Late addition Michael Sawyers (300 pounds) and possibly Robertson (306) and Mosley (362) bring size inside. They even got experience with the addition of junior college DT Owen Williams.
Dillon Bates, Gavin Bryant, Jakob Johnson and JUCO transfer Chris Weatherd comprise a solid group here. Weatherd and Bates are the names to watch early. UT has one starting outside linebacker spot open and they both could be candidates to compete for it. Bryant, though a touch undersized at 6-foot, 233 pounds, is one of the hardest-hitting players in the 2014 class. He could be a demon on special teams. Johnson, a native of Germany, who only recently began playing American football, is the wildcard of the bunch. Also keep an eye on Chattanooga-native Colton Jumper, who was added as a preferred walk-on. The former Navy signee will provide depth and could be an important special teamer.
The Vols added a lot of size, speed and talent in the secondary. The exact positions, and the depth chart, will have to sort themselves out. It appears that seven signees will play in the secondary – Cortez McDowell, Todd Kelly, RaShaan Gaulden, Emmanuel Moseley, D’Andre Payne, Elliott Berry and Evan Berry. McDowell and Kelly are both safeties – and very good ones. Starters Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil are both returning there, but the newcomers will push for opportunities. Payne and Moseley likely end up at cornerback. Neither has a ton of size, but both bring a lot of speed. Gaulden and the Berry twins are all versatile. Gaulden could play corner, safety or the always-important nickelback spot that UT struggled at in 2013. Evan Berry is likely a cornerback, though he’s also expressed a desire to play offense. Elliott Berry is more of an ‘athlete’ at this point who could end up in multiple spots.
Special teams: B+
Aaron Medley is a consensus top-10 kicker and he’ll compete immediately for the job left vacant by departing senior Michael Palardy. He could be as important as any other signee in 2014. He was the only specialist signee, though Wharton is among the players expected to help out in the return game. The overall upgrades in size and speed and the sheer quantity of the class gives UT more depth that will trickle down to all of the special teams units. They’re not confirmed by UT, but the Vols also have commitments from punter Troy Waites and long snapper Wesley Horky to be preferred walk-ons.
Coming off a 5-7 campaign, the Vols signed a class that stacks up to just about anybody in the nation. Consider this: Tennessee’s seven losses equaled the combined total of the number of losses for the other four teams who finished in the top five in the Rivals.com team rankings. That’s impressive.
Twenty of the signees attained four-star status by at least one major recruiting service and two others, Malone and Hurd, were five-stars. It’s a class that adds speed, talent, depth and a touch of experience as well with some of the JUCO signees. Classes are ultimately judged a few years down the line, and this one is no different, but UT is at least off to a good start in its journey to rebuild under Jones.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga