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VOL. 8 | NO. 8 | Saturday, February 14, 2015

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Dave Link

Jones, Vols Make Honor Roll With Recruiting Class

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KNOXVILLE – Butch Jones has done it again.

Tennessee’s football coach has created a national buzz with his 2015 recruiting class.

UT finished with the No. 4 class in the nation as rated by 247Sports and ended up ranked No. 5 by Rivals when the Feb. 4 national signing day was over.

Drew Richmond, an offensive tackle, signs his national letter of intent to play football at Tennessee during a signing day ceremony at Memphis University School Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015. Richmond decommitted from Mississippi earlier this week and signed with Tennessee.

(AP Photo/Karen Pulfer Focht)

National media experts from Tony Barnhart to Paul Finebaum were praising the recruiting job done by Jones and his staff.

And when Finebaum sings your praises, something is going right.

No doubt Jones has it going with his 2015 class.

“I don’t think it is any secret that we needed to address some program issues in our offensive and defensive line,” Jones said on national signing day. “We were able to do that by signing five offensive linemen and six defensive linemen. That will add to the overall depth and competitive aspect at those positions.”

Jones says the Vols’ coaches weren’t as concerned with star ratings as with a recruiting profile of players. Still, the Vols got their fair share of four and five stars.

“We really wanted winners,” Jones adds. “We wanted individuals that played for state championships and came from great high school programs. That was a big part of the profile this year.

“Also we talk about character, from overall character to competitive character. We have spoken about continuing to improve the competitive component within our football program. We feel like we were able to do that.”

It appears to be the case, so let’s put a grade on each position of the 2015 class and potential impact players for the upcoming season:

Quarterbacks: A

It was crucial for the Vols to land quarterbacks in the 2015 class after not getting one the previous year. Mission accomplished.

Joshua Dobbs returns as the clear No. 1 quarterback, but with Justin Worley’s eligibility expired and backup Nathan Peterman planning a transfer to Pitt, UT badly needed depth behind Dobbs.

The Vols got three four-star quarterbacks: Early enrollees Quinten Dormady of Boerne (Texas) High and Jauan Jennings of Murfreesboro Blackman High, and Sheriron Jones of Rancho Verde High in Moreno Valley, Calif.

Dormady and Jennings will get a jump-start on Jones by going through winter workouts and spring practices. Jones is a talent with great size (6-foot-3) and athleticism.

“We’ll see how they develop, and if one individual out of the three separate themselves, and if they’re worthy of being named the No. 2 quarterback, we’ll be able to name the No. 2 quarterback,” Jones explains.

“But I think having Quinten here and having Jauan here will benefit them for spring football. They’ll get a ton of repetitions, and then Sheriron is extremely bright, very, very intelligent, very confident. So it should make for a great August camp.”

It’s one of the top quarterback classes in the nation, and the three apparently welcome a healthy competition.

“I’m very proud of the three individuals at the quarterback position because not one quarterback asked me about the other individual or who else we were recruiting,” Jones notes.

“And to me, that’s what we want. We want individuals with great competitive character that don’t care. All they worry about is themselves, and they’re going to have a tremendous opportunity.

“We have one quarterback on scholarship (Dobbs), so it was a tremendous selling point for these individuals. As we know, you’re one snap away at the quarterback position, or any position.”

Running backs: B

This unit would be another ‘A’ if not for Kendall Bussey of New Orleans’s Isidore Newman High School late de-commitment and flip to Texas A&M.

Regardless, UT got an impact player in Alvin Kamara of Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College, who redshirted one season (2013) at Alabama before going to junior college.

Kamara, who rushed for 1,211 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, will give the Vols a potent one-two punch along with Jalen Hurd, the former Hendersonville Beech star who had a breakout season with the Vols in 2014.

UT also signed John Kelly of Oak Park (Mich.) High School, listed as an athlete. However, Kelly rushed for 1,312 yards last season and averaged about 10 yards per carry, so don’t be surprised if he gets some carries as a true freshman behind Hurd and Kamara.

The Vols were left thin at running back with the departures of seniors Marlin Lane and Devrin Young and the transfer of true freshman Derrell Scott (two games, 40 yards in 2014) to East Carolina.

Justus Pickett, the transfer from Maryland, returns after rushing for 64 yards last season.

Jones says depth at running back is a “big concern.”

“Right now we only have three scholarship running backs,” Jones says. “We may look to add to that position, but it is a concern. When you play in a physical league like us, like we do week in and week out, that is a concern moving forward.”

Offensive line: A

Offensive tackle Drew Richmond’s de-commitment and flip from Ole Miss to the Vols two days before national signing day was a coup for Jones and his staff.

Richmond, a senior at Memphis University School, committed to Ole Miss on Sept. 9, but that didn’t deter the Vols. He’s the second four-star offensive tackle in the class along with Jack Jones of Murfreesboro Oakland High.

The Vols also signed three other offensive linemen: Venzell Boulware of Creekside High in Fairburn, Ga.; Zach Stewart of Coalfield High; and Chance Hall of Northside High in Roanoke, Va.

Of all the new O-linemen, Richmond (6-5, 310) was the biggest catch. He was the No. 3 offensive tackle and No. 54 recruit by 247Sports and was the No. 2 prospect in Tennessee.

“It completed a class,” Jones says of signing Richmond. “Again, we get back to improving our overall athleticism on the offensive front, and Drew obviously does that. He’s a left tackle. He’s very, very athletic, and when we watch film, one of the big things along with toughness is balance. … He brings everything that we’re looking for in an offensive lineman.”

Jones (6-5, 300), a four-star tackle, plays with some grit and could get in the rotation early.

“Jack plays with a toughness and the hard edge we strive for and expect in our players,” offensive line coach Don Mahoney explains. “Jack has shown the ability to play both tackle and guard, and we really value his versatility.”

Boulware (6-3, 303) was an overpowering lineman at Creekside, alma mater of current UT freshmen Evan and Elliott Berry.

“Venzell has tremendous size and strength,” Mahoney says. “He is very competitive and driven. He plays with a high football IQ. Venzell has the ability to play multiple positions on the line.”

Chance Hall, an early enrollee from Northside High in Roanoke, Va., missed the 2014 season with a torn Achilles tendon and will be limited in spring practices. He’s listed as a defensive lineman, but can also play on the O-line as he did his junior season while leading Northside to a state title.

Wide receivers/Tight ends: B+

Quality over quantity is what the Vols needed here, and they seem to have gotten it.

Kyle Oliver of Murfreesboro Oakland High was used as a versatile threat at tight end and split end and has good size (6-4, 226) and athleticism. He was rated a three-star, but has plenty of upside with more work in the weight room.

Oliver joins a healthy tight end unit, despite the decision of true freshman Daniel Helm to transfer to Duke.

The Vols return Ethan Wolf, who earned a starting job as a true freshman last season out of Minster (Ohio) High, along with former walk-on Alex Ellis, versatile freshman Neiko Creamer, and sophomore A.J. Branisel, who sat out 2014 with a knee injury.

UT’s injury-riddled wide receiver corps returns almost intact, so that position wasn’t a priority for this class.

Only one true wide receiver was signed, five-star Preston Williams of Lovejoy High in Hampton, Ga.

Williams has great speed and size (6-4, 180), but has also been injury prone. Williams spent much of his sophomore season at Lovejoy slowed by injuries, caught 56 passes for 1,402 yards and 14 TDs last year, and was poised for a big senior season before suffering an ACL injury/surgery.

“(Williams) expects to be back, ready for the first game, and that’s kind of who Preston is,” Jones adds. “He believes that, and I think Preston’s capable of doing anything he puts his mind to.”

Williams has a flair for the flamboyant. He showed up for his signing ceremony decked out in a cream-colored suit, orange bow tie, and mini orange and white helmet with a power ‘T’ on it.

“Well, Preston is very confident and flamboyant at times, but I think that’s what makes him the player that he is,” Jones points out. “He has great, great confidence, and has a great skill set. He believes in his ability, and usually the great ones are wired that way.”

Vincent Perry of Nashville Hillsboro is listed as an athlete, and can play either running back or slot receiver. Perry (5-11, 170) is taking a “blue shirt,” meaning he hasn’t signed but will be put on scholarship when he joins he team for fall camp so he doesn’t count toward the 2015 signing class.

Athlete Joc Bruce (5-10, 165) of Knoxville’s South-Doyle is also taking a blue shirt and is listed as an athlete. Bruce played running back, slot receiver, and in the defensive secondary for South-Doyle.

Defensive line/Ends: A+

The gem of the 2015 class is the defensive line/end unit, starting with five-star Kahlil McKenzie of Clayton Valley Charter School in Concord, Calif. He’s the son of former Vol Reggie McKenzie, now the general manager of the Oakland Raiders.

Kahlil missed his senior season of high school football after being ruled ineligible as a transfer from Concord’s De La Salle High. Despite being out of the game in 2014 and perhaps not in great shape – he’s listed at 6-foot-3 and 327 pounds –McKenzie drew raves from analysts at the U.S. Army All-American Game regarding his future with the Vols.

“I think with Kahlil McKenzie you have the complete package,” Jones says. “It starts with character. He has tremendous character. Great, great, great family. … Right now, I think he is about 370 pounds, and I told him he needs to get down a little bit. He has great makeup. He uses his hands well, he is tough, and he has a passion for the University of Tennessee.”

McKenzie is one of four freshman defensive linemen in the class. Others are tackles Shy Tuttle of North Davidson High in Lexington, N.C., Quay Picou of Buford (Ga.) High and Hall, who might end up on either side of the line.

Tuttle (6-3, 315) and Picou (6-1, 263) are four-star tackles. Tuttle is an early enrollee, and with winter workouts and spring practice under his belt, he has a chance to get in the rotation early.

UT landed three defensive ends: Kyle Phillips of Nashville Hillsboro High, Andrew Butcher of Alpharetta (Ga.) High, and Darrell Taylor of Hopewell (Va.) High.

Phillips (6-4, 250) was a huge part of the 2015 class – the No. 1 prospect in Tennessee and an Army All-American Bowl selection – and enrolled at UT in January. However, Phillips will miss spring practices after recently having shoulder surgery.

Jones says defensive linemen were a priority in the 2015 class.

“The thing that we’ve been missing from our defense is an overall edge presence, in terms of depth and then size in front,” Jones explains. “If you look at the big bodies in this recruiting class, we wanted length.

“Obviously, Kyle Phillips addresses that, and then you look at our size inside with Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie, those two big defensive tackles, and then you have the quickness from Quay (Picou) that he’ll bring inside. He’ll be a great complement to (Tuttle and McKenzie). Andrew Butcher is an individual who plays with a motor and plays with a high energy about himself.”

Linebackers: A-

Linebacker wasn’t a huge priority with this class, which has three linebackers: Darrin Kirkland Jr. of Lawrence Central High in Indianapolis; Quart’e Sapp of Milton High in Alpharetta, Ga.; and Austin Smith of Buford (Ga.) High.

A.J. Johnson, a senior linebacker in 2014, will be a big loss for the defense, but the Vols played the last three games without him anyway due to the rape investigation involving Johnson and sophomore defensive back Michael Williams. Both were dismissed from the team.

Aside from Johnson, the linebacker unit returns intact led by junior Curt Maggitt, sophomore Jaylen Reeves-Maybin, and freshman Jakob Johnson.

Kirkland Jr., one of the 10 early enrollees, will miss spring practice with a pectoral injury.

Sapp (6-2, 200) is in the mold of Reeves-Maybin – a speedy outside linebacker who plays like a safety.

“I think (Sapp) is the best cover down player in the South,” UT linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen notes. “He is explosive and extremely cerebral. He is very tough and plays smart. He plays similar to Jaylen Reeves-Maybin, but is even bigger.”

Smith (6-3, 234) was a teammate of Picou on Buford’s 2014 state championship team and has plenty of versatility.

“Austin has all the measurables when it comes to being fast and strong,” Thigpen says. “He is a very good tackler in space and can change direction quickly. Austin has tremendous pass-rush ability and can play both the ‘Sam’ linebacker and defensive end in certain situations.”

Secondary: A-

UT had a similar situation in the secondary as linebacker: big numbers weren’t needed, but the players Jones got were quality.

An impact cornerback should be 6-2, 173-pound Justin Martin, who played at Nashville Overton High and spent the past two seasons at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M Junior College after not qualifying academically.

He put up big numbers as a running back at Overton (1,887 yards and 26 TDs as a senior) and became a standout corner in junior college, a four-star recruit and the No. 2 JUCO cornerback nationally by 247Sports.

“Justin is a player we liked coming out of high school, and we watched his progress in junior college and he’s made tremendous strides there,” UT secondary coach Willie Martinez explains. “He’s a great athlete who is also an exceptional runner. Justin is a playmaker.”

Other cornerbacks are Micah Abernathy of Greater Atlanta Christian in Norcross, Ga., and Darrell Miller of Cedar Hill (Texas) High.

Look for Martin to be the top candidate to replace starting corner Justin Coleman, a senior in 2014.

Safety wasn’t a big concern with this class, either, but the Vols got a good one in 6-2, 185-pound Stephen Griffin of South Mecklenburg High in Charlotte, N.C. Griffin is an early enrollee.

Special teams: A

Tommy Townsend played strong safety at Boone High in Orlando, Fla., but don’t look for that to happen at UT.

Townsend was recruited as the punter to replace starter Matt Darr, a senior in 2014.

“(Townsend) has great leg strength and has the ability to boom the football,” special teams coach Mark Elder says. “He is technically sound and will be ready to contribute immediately to our program.”

UT long snapper Chris Giampapa is heading into his senior season in 2015, so the Vols will soon need to replace him.

Enter Riley Lovingood, a senior at Hendersonville Beech High. Lovingood played center in high school and is one of the nation’s best long snappers. He caught the Vols’ attention during a camp at UT.

“He is the premier long snapper in the country in this class,” Elder adds.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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