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VOL. 132 | NO. 60 | Friday, March 24, 2017

Reflecting on 2017 Class, Looking Ahead to 2018

By Dave Link

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Recruiting is the lifeblood of a college football program, and the cycle never ends.

As UT’s recruiting grind continues and spring practices opened this week, I caught up with Ryan Callahan of 247Sports to talk about the 2017 class. Callahan covers UT recruiting, and here’s what he has to say about the 2017 class, which consists of 22 three-star recruits, four four-stars and one five-star (offensive lineman Trey Smith of University School of Jackson), according to 247Sports’ composite rankings.

UT has 22 three-star recruits. That seems like a lot, but how many of these three stars are close to four stars?

Callahan: “That’s the important distinction I think a lot of people have to look at, is that all three stars are not created equal. That’s one of the broadest ratings in terms of numerical ratings that we have on our site. It can go from an 80 to an 89 with an 80 being often a pretty lightly recruited player and an 89 being someone who might be one of the top 400 players in the country. So a three-star definitely doesn’t mean mediocre player.

“There’s a lot of those three stars in this class that I think are very good. And some of the others that aren’t highly ranked, still have a chance to be really good players and have a lot of time to develop. I think this class overall is not nearly as average as a lot of people might think.

“I think there’s a lot of potential for a lot of guys in this class, and this class has a chance to outperform what people would expect based on how it looked on (National Signing Day). I think this is a class that’s going to take some time because they do have some of those developmental prospects.

“There aren’t a ton of immediate impact guys in this class, but I think they filled a lot of needs for sure, and they’ve got enough high upside players that we could look back in a few years and say that was actually a really solid class that accomplished quite a bit.’’

Who might be three stars with a chance to play in 2017?

Callahan: “It’s really interesting because you’ve got several who I think have a chance to be really good players, but maybe not first-round, NFL draft pick-good players. You’ve got some guys like Solon Page at linebacker that had more than 160 tackles as a senior and was the Class 5A defensive player of the year in Georgia. His stock really rose in our rankings this year. He’s one that stands out to me.

“Marquez Bembry is a guy who had knee injuries this year so he didn’t play much. And he’s a 214-pound defensive end, essentially this what Tennessee sees him as, so he’s going to need to grow into a defensive end. But he ran a 10.6-second 100 meters in track in high school, so (he’s) just a great athlete with a ton of upside there.

“And then you’ve got a guy like K’Rojhn Calbert, who isn’t even that experienced in football, he’s essentially played one full season of high school football and doesn’t have much of an idea what he’s doing on the offensive line right now. But I’ve talked with some people who think he has the potential to be a high NFL draft pick in a few years if he can develop a lot.

“So there’s a wide range of different players here. Timothy Jordan, he’s a three-star running back who I’ve talked with some people that say they wouldn’t be surprised if he develops into a starting running back at Tennessee over the next few years. Butch Jones and (running backs coach) Robert Gillespie have already compared him to John Kelly, a guy who’s already been very productive at Tennessee. Those are just a few, but certainly not the only ones that stand out.

“There are a lot of those three stars in this class that really have a chance to surprise some people. Butch Jones is really high on Josh Palmer, a three-star receiver from Florida that they added about a week before signing day. He’s only spent two years in the U.S. playing football and lived in Canada before that. I think he’s got a lot of upside.

“There’s a lot of those types of players whose arrow is pointed up right now, and they just have some developing to do. But once they get there, they could be really nice players.’’

What about the four-star signees? Several look like impact players, such as Shanon Reid, Ty Chandler, and Maleik Gray. What about those guys?

Callahan: “Reid maybe not (perform as an impact player right away) because he’s just a light linebacker. He and Solon Page, both of those guys are linebackers who currently weigh less than 210 pounds, so they’re realistically going to have to add 15 to 20 pounds before they’re ready to jump in there and play a lot.

“But I think certainly Ty Chandler is going to play as much as anyone right out of the gates as a true freshman. Tennessee needed a big-time running back in this class to be able to take over for Alvin Kamara, and I think he’s probably going to contribute with John Kelly right away.

“I see those two guys having a good chance to split carries this year, so Chandler will be thrown in there right away. Timothy Jordan might even get some playing time as a freshman, even though he’s not a four-star.’’

“Maleik Gray is really interesting. He’s obviously one of the higher upside guys in this class and a top 100 player, but he’s never played safety before, not on a full-time basis. He was more of a linebacker in high school, but an undersized linebacker obviously at the college level being 190 pounds, so I think he might face a little bit of an adjustment to play safety in college.

“I could see him actually not being much of an immediate impact player, except on special teams, so it’s going to depend how they use him and how much he can develop before his freshman season. But I think he might need a year to pick up safety before he plays a lot on defense, so it’s just going to depend on where he fits in. Some people think he might grow into a linebacker. I’m not sure that’s going to happen. But either way, I think it could take him a year to kind of settle into where he ends up playing.’’

Jones has already praised Trey Smith for his offseason work as an early enrollee. How realistic is it to think Smith might come in and play right away on the offensive line?

Callahan: “It’s really realistic. I think that Smith could come in and challenge for a starting job, or at least some playing time, as a freshman. The interesting thing is Tennessee doesn’t have to have him do that because they return four out of five starters on the offensive line and a few other guys who have plenty of experience behind them, so there’s plenty of legitimate competition there even without him.

“But you throw in a guy that’s just that talented and it’s a really competitive situation across the line. I think (Smith) might just be so talented that they can’t keep him off the field, and that’s what’s going to be interesting to see this spring.

“It’s also interesting that he played guard in the Under Armour All-American game, but he was a tackle in high school, so he really could play any of those four positions, either tackle or either guard, and that gives them options, too. So where they put him will be a big variable in that, but if he plays tackle, I think he’s going to have a chance, at least, to compete, but they’ve got three or four other experienced guys there, too.

“So where he fits in with that group, it’s just going to depend on how good he is right out of the gates.

“But when you talk about someone who is that physically developed out of high school, that’s usually the thing offensive linemen don’t have.

“They usually need to lose weight or add strength. He’s kind of well-developed in both of those areas, so I think he has a shot to be one of those rare freshmen who can play a lot as a true freshman.”

Did Tennessee meet its needs with this class, and where did it possibly fall short?

Callahan: “That’s the one thing about this class, I think because they were willing to go beyond signing a full 25-man class. Again, they had to get creative to squeeze in a few extra guys. Because they did that, I think they pretty much addressed their needs in terms of numbers. If you maybe wanted to pick apart something in this class, point to the defensive line, especially at defensive end.

“I think some of the guys they’ve got there are going to need some time to develop, and they just lost a lot of production with Derek Barnett, Corey Vereen and LaTroy Lewis.

“They didn’t really get a defensive end who’s likely to step in and play a lot right away, but Deandre Johnson is an early enrollee who could play there. So that’s maybe one place they didn’t get just a high-caliber enough player to step in and play a lot as true freshman, but other than that, I think they pretty much got what they needed in terms of numbers. And to sign 28 guys, you certainly need to have addressed a lot of needs, and I think they did.’’

How did Tennessee sign 28 instead of 25, the limit?

Callahan: “They didn’t technically sign 28. Obviously, Princeton Fant (wide receiver from La Vergne High) wasn’t announced as a signee, but he’s still part of Tennessee’s class. What happened is he’s planning to blue shirt, and Tennessee wasn’t able to announce him because he has yet to be admitted to the university.

“There are likely at least a couple of other blue shirts in the class who were announced as signees on Wednesday. It’s because they’ve been admitted, not because they’ve signed anything binding. So Fant’s in the same boat as those guys. He just hasn’t been admitted yet because he still has some work to do academically.’’

Should Tennessee (and fans) be concerned with all the de-commitments (13), and is that an unusually high number?

Callahan: “Yeah, it’s a big number, and I think that’s something they’ve got to look at, because Tennessee was so tight on space down the stretch in their class, and part of that was because they filled up a lot of their class by November or December.

“They were well over 20 a couple of months before signing day, and that didn’t leave them with much flexibility, so they kind of had to part ways with some guys in December – and even into January – to even be able to make room in their class.

“Part of that (number of de-commitments) is from taking early commitments from some guys that you maybe weren’t as high on later in the process after you’ve seen their senior film, and part of that was just kind of trying to make room to fill needs. They had maybe too many players at one position and kind of just had to make a tough decision.

“One of those guys was late, still taking visits to other schools, and they needed to know one way or the other whether he was still going to be in the class.

“Either way, though, I think the general problem there is just maybe taking too many early commitments. I think it’s something they will have to look at a little bit.

“A couple of those guys were Hunter Johnson (quarterback from Brownsburg, Indiana High) and Tee Higgins (wide receiver from Oak Ridge High), two five-star players that just didn’t stick from early commitments. But the rest, I think a lot of those guys were just maybe some guys they took a little bit too early and later on had second thoughts about taking them and signing those guys. And it leads to some natural parting of ways with some guys.’’

Lots of fans and media are making a big deal about Tennessee not getting Higgins of Oak Ridge and Amari Rodgers of Catholic High (both wide receivers going to Clemson, along with Hunter Johnson). Jones, however, says UT did well with in-state recruiting. What’s your take on it?

Callahan: “I think they did OK in-state. I think getting Trey Smith allowed Tennessee to say this was a pretty good year. If they’d missed out on Trey Smith or Ty Chandler, either of those guys, I think it would be hard to paint this as a successful in-state class.

“I think those two kind of allowed them to save face, but when you look at it, they still missed out on several guys in a class that a lot of people consider is the most talented the state of Tennessee has ever produced.

“To sign seven and counting Princeton Fant eight in-state players in this class, that’s not bad, but I think this class was good enough they could have signed 12 or 14 in-state if they’d wanted to and not been reaching at all.

“There were five or six really highly ranked guys that are going elsewhere, and that’s tough to swallow, especially when a couple of them are right in your backyard like Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers.

“So there were some missed opportunities, for sure. Not all of them were because of anything they did wrong. Some were just guys that maybe just wanted to leave this state for whatever reason.

“But those are still big misses when you look at some of those being five star and top 100 players that went elsewhere that took a serious look at Tennessee, and even Tee Higgins was once committed to Tennessee.’’

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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