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VOL. 133 | NO. 35 | Friday, February 16, 2018

Link

Dave Link

Signing Class Disappointing, But Groundwork Laid

Dave Link, Knoxville Sports Correspondent

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Tennessee football fans are hoping for a better National Signing Day in 2019. This year’s was a relative dud.

New coach Jeremy Pruitt, hired on Dec. 7, signed six players on Feb. 7 but whiffed on several high-profile recruits he and his staff were pursuing. He had signed 14 players during the first-ever early signing period Dec. 20-22.

Tennessee’s 2018 class was ranked 20th in the nation and eighth in the SEC by 247Sports. It’s the lowest ranking for a Tennessee class since Jones’ first class in 2013 was 25th overall and 11th in the SEC.

“Naturally, that was a disappointing finish for fans because Tennessee was in on so many big-name players down the stretch and, at one point, they led for a couple of those guys, and maybe more than a couple,” says Ryan Callahan, who covers Tennessee recruiting for 247Sports.

“When you’re in those big-time battles, there’s never any guarantee you’re going to get any of them, and I think Tennessee found that out the hard way this year. It can be tough to win those types of players, especially with a new staff that’s only been there for a couple of months.

“It kind of reminded you of Butch Jones’ first year at Tennessee. They were in on some big-name players, including Carl Lawson, who ended up at Auburn and obviously now is in the NFL (with the Cincinnati Bengals). He was a big-time defensive end target for that staff and they missed out on him, and a lot of the other big-name players they pursued down the stretch, Vonn Bell (safety at Ohio State, now with New Orleans Saints).

“They finished second for a lot of guys, and that’s kind of what happened with Jeremy Pruitt’s staff this year, finished second or third for a lot of players they had a shot at. They just never could get those guys to the finish line. It’s disappointing for fans when that happens, but I don’t think it’s the end of the world and I definitely don’t think it’s indicative of how this staff is going to recruit going forward.

“The fact that they even got those players on campus and had a shot at them down the stretch I think is a good sign for Tennessee, and frankly finishing 20th in Pruitt’s first year isn’t bad when you compare it to what other coaches in their first years have done.”

Tennessee’s coaches missed on at least five of their top targets leading up to signing day.

Linebacker Quay Walker of Crisp County High in Cordele, Georgia, appeared to be leaning toward Tennessee, only to sign with Georgia.

UT also was in the hunt for wide receiver Jacob Copeland of Escambia High in Pensacola, Florida, cornerback Eddie Smith of Salmen High in Slidell, Louisiana, and cornerback Olaijah Griffin of Mission Viejo (California) High.

Griffin signed with USC, Copeland with Florida and Smith with Alabama.

Pruitt also lost two commitments to Florida State. Running back Anthony Grant of Buford (Georgia) High and wide receiver Jordan Young of Heritage High in Conyers, Georgia, flipped from the Vols to the Seminoles.

Callahan lauds Pruitt’s aggressive approach.

“I can’t speak for Jeremy Pruitt, and he hasn’t said this, but if I had to guess, part of what he was trying to accomplish was you’re wanting to sign players who could help you, and they had a legitimate shot at those guys, but I think you’re also just trying to establish the mentality that Tennessee is going to go after the best players in the country and go toe-to-toe with Alabama and Georgia and USC and all those types of programs nationwide,” Callahan points out.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily a loss overall, the fact that you missed out on those guys. I think you’re kind of establishing a culture and an expectation among your staff and among the fan base to let them know, ‘Hey, we’re not afraid to go head-to-head with anybody in recruiting.’ I think they at least accomplished that and showed that they can get guys like that on campus on pretty short notice.”

Pruitt says UT fans shouldn’t worry about recruiting in the future.

“I know some of you sat there today on your hands watching TV, and you’re thinking, ‘What if?’” Pruitt said at a signing day ceremony. “Well don’t think that no more because next year on signing day we will be up there at the very top.”

That means recruiting more top-notch players.

“Overall, I think (Pruitt) looks at the roster he inherited at Tennessee and says we’ve got to improve the overall talent that we’re recruiting,” Callahan adds.

“Clearly there are players on that roster I’m sure they think are not to the level they want, so when you look at that, they’ve got to continue recruiting the types of players that he’s used to recruiting at Alabama and Florida State and Georgia to be able to go head-to-head with those programs.

“I think it’s understandable fans are disappointed by the way things went, but at the same time you have to appreciate the way he approached it and the fact that he didn’t just go after second-tier guys that were a bit more obtainable.

“The other thing you’re seeing is the early signing period. It really is a bigger deal than people realize, that 70 or 75 percent of the players nationwide were off the board less than two weeks into Jeremy Pruitt’s tenure.

“They got what they could and did a pretty good job in the early signing period, but after that, you’re looking around for late options in late December and early January and there just aren’t many guys out there because almost three-quarters of the players had signed.”

Feb. 7 signees

(Star ratings by 247Sports)

Trevon Flowers
Defensive back, three-star, 6-1, 185 pounds, Tucker (Georgia) High

Flowers originally committed to play baseball at Kentucky and took a three-year break from football before returning to play free safety last fall for Tucker, which went 12-2 and reached Georgia’s Class 6A state semifinals. He was also an all-state basketball player in 2016-17. He chose Tennessee over Clemson and Kentucky.

Pruitt on Flowers: “A very unique situation where (Flowers) hadn’t played football since his eighth-grade year, but came out his senior year and played. I saw him practice one time this past fall. Very unique individual, has a very good skill set as a defensive back and could probably play all six positions back there. I think this guy’s going to be a very good player for us one day.”

Kurott Garland
Defensive lineman, three-star, 6-3, 250 pounds, Heritage High, Conyers, Georgia

Garland had 125 tackles (82 solo) and 12.5 sacks in 2017 as Heritage reached the second round of Georgia’s Class 6A state playoffs. He was chosen to the Georgia Sports Writers Association’s Class 6A all-state second team.

Pruitt on Garland: “(He’s) a young man that we found kind of over the break during bowl prep (while at Alabama) looking through all-state teams, just trying to find guys that possibly were under the radar. This guy is a very good football player, really good with his hands. He fits a need as far as a guy inside that can play defensive tackle for us. He’s 260 pounds right now, and he looks like a guy that can possibly be a 290-pound guy one day, so he’s going to be a really good football player.”

Emmit Gooden
Defensive lineman, three-star, 6-4, 305 pounds, Haywood High, Brownsville, Independence Community College

Gooden was the Tennessee Titans Mr. Football Class 4A Lineman award winner as a senior at Haywood High in 2015 before continuing his career at Independence (Kansas) Community College. He had 55 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and four sacks in 2016. Last season, Gooden had 81 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss as Independence won the Kansas Jayhawk Conference and posted the program’s first-ever bowl win. He was rated a four-star by ESPN and Rivals.com.

Pruitt on Gooden: “Emmit’s been trying to get to Tennessee for several years now. He’s in junior college right now at Independence, and he’ll actually be a late qualifier. He’s going to finish up in May. He has a little bit of work to do. But he’s a big man, probably 6-4, 300 pounds, with a really good motor, and again, another guy that fits for us inside with what we’re trying to do defensively (with a 3-4 scheme).”

John Mincey
Defensive lineman, three-star, 6-4, 255 pounds, Clinch County High, Homerville, Georgia

Mincey helped Clinch County to a 12-2 record and Georgia’s Class A state championship in 2017. He was on the Georgia Sports Writers Association’s all-state first team and also had Power 5 offers from Arkansas, South Carolina and Auburn.

Pruitt on Mincey: “He’s a guy that we’ve been following for several years. Probably all of our guys on staff have had him in camp at some point in time. He’s probably 6-4, 260 pounds right now with a great frame. He’s very athletic, plays basketball (at Clinch County), and that’s another guy on the defensive front.”

JJ Peterson
Linebacker, four-star, 6-2, 231 pounds, Colquitt County High, Moultrie, Georgia

Peterson was a consensus four-star and Class 7A all-state first-team player as a senior in 2017 when Colquitt County reached the state championship game. In three seasons, Peterson had 199 tackles, 28 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks. He also had Power 5 offers from Alabama, Auburn, and Florida.

Pruitt on Peterson: “(He) has a very unique skill at linebacker and can actually play all four positions (in the 3-4 scheme), inside or outside. He’s a guy that can man-to-man on third down, he can rush the quarterback, but he’s a guy that can make plays in space also.”

Cedric Tillman
Wide receiver, three-star, 6-3, 204 pounds, Bishop Gorman High, Las Vegas

Tillman had 37 catches for 774 yards and seven touchdowns last year at national power Bishop Gorman High, which won Class 4A state titles in 2016 and ’17. During Tillman’s junior season, Bishop Gorman went 15-0 – extending the program’s winning streak to 54 games – and advanced to its third consecutive USA Today High School Football National Championship.

Pruitt on Tillman: “We just came across him a couple of days ago. We were just finishing out our class, and started looking at one of the better programs across the country, Bishop Gorman. This high school has had a ton of success over the years. I think they played a national schedule this past year and against the three national teams that they played, I think he had 237 yards receiving. (He has) very long arms, big catch radius, a guy that could be really hard to guard.”

December signees in school

Greg Emerson
Defensive tackle, four-star, 6-3, 280 pounds, North Side High, Jackson

Emerson suffered a dislocated left ankle and fractured fibula during The Opening Finals Nike camp in Beaverton, Oregon, in July and missed the 2017 season. He committed to the Vols two days after suffering the injury. As a junior, Emerson helped North Side to a state playoff berth and was rated the No. 1 prospect in the state by The Tennessean.

Pruitt on Emerson: “He’s 6-3, 305 pounds right now. Greg didn’t play this past year, he had an injury, but he’s working out right now. He’s a mid-year enrollee. He’s doing an outstanding job. He’s almost cleared now to where he can do everything we need him to do.”

Alontae Taylor
Wide receiver, four-star, 6-0, 184 pounds, Coffee County Central High, Manchester

Taylor makes the move to receiver this spring after rushing for 1,409 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior in 2017. He also caught 11 passes for 256 yards and a TD last season and completed 24 passes for 391 yards and a touchdown. In four years, Taylor totaled 8,225 yards, 75 touchdowns and had more than 6,000 rushing yards as the program’s career rushing leader.

Pruitt on Taylor: “Alontae is here and he’s working really hard.”

Jordan Allen
Defensive end, three-star, 6-4, 230 pounds, Armijo (California) High, City College of San Francisco, San Francisco, California

Allen played wide receiver and defensive back at Armijo High in California and also was a standout basketball player. After signing with UC Davis, Allen took a redshirt year in 2016 before transferring to City College of San Francisco. Last season, he tied for the team-high in sacks (4.5) and was fourth in tackles (27 in nine games).

Note: Pruitt did not comment on Allen.

Dominick Wood-Anderson
Tight end, four-star, 6-5, 245 pounds, Steele Canyon High, Spring Valley, California/Arizona Western College, Yuma, Arizona

Wood-Anderson played quarterback at Steele Canyon High before spending two years at Arizona Western, where he became the No. 1 rated tight end in the nation. As a sophomore, Wood-Anderson caught 31 passes for 258 yards and two TDs and was a 2017 NJCAA second-team All-American.

Pruitt on Wood-Anderson: “He’s a very talented guy who could actually block in the ‘C’ area and could flex out at wide receiver and be a mismatch guy.”

Jerome Carvin
Freshman offensive tackle, four-star, 6-4, 330 pounds, Cordova High

Carvin helped Cordova High to the Class 6A state semifinals as a junior and another playoff berth last season. He attended the New Orleans Nike Opening Regional Camp and the Under Armour All-American Camp in 2017 and played in the Toyota East-West All-Star Classic.

Pruitt on Carvin: “Jermone Carvin is a big man from Cordova, Tennessee. I actually had seen him in camp before. Jerome can bend, he has power, and he’s a smart guy. He’s enrolled early, so we’ll get a chance to see him this spring.”

Jacob Warren
Tight end, three-star, 6-6, 211 pounds, Farragut High, Knoxville

Warren was a key player on Farragut High’s 2016 Class 6A state championship team, catching 29 passes for 479 yards and nine touchdowns. Last season, Warren had 39 catches for 659 yards and eight TDs and later played in the Toyota East-West All-Star Classic.

Pruitt on Warren: “Jacob in high school probably played more wide receiver, and he knows that he has to put on some pounds to play tight end, but he’s working hard to do it.”

Ollie Lane
Offensive guard, three-star, 6-5, 285 pounds, Gibbs High, Knoxville

Lane anchored the offensive line at Gibbs, which reached the second round of the Class 5A state playoffs in 2016. He was the Region 2-5A offensive lineman of the year as a junior and senior, earned Class 5A all-state honors last season and played in the Toyota East-West All-Star Classic.

Pruitt on Lane: “He played in an option offense in high school. He’s a really good run blocker, he’s mid-year, he’s here and he’s working hard. You can tell he’s getting stronger in the weight room.”

Jahmir Johnson
Offensive tackle, four-star, 6-5, 278 pounds, Imhotep Institute Charter High, Philadelphia/Arizona Western College, Yuma, Arizona

Johnson helped Imhotep Institute to an undefeated season and Class 3A state championship as a sophomore in 2015. After signing with Rhode Island and redshirting in 2016, Johnson transferred to Arizona Western College last season and was an NJCAA first-team All-American.

Pruitt on Johnson: “He actually has three years left to play. He’s a guy with really good feet, he can slide his feet, has good balance and body control. Obviously, he probably needs to put on a few pounds, but he has the frame to do it, and he’s working hard at it.”

Jeremy Banks
Running back, three-star, 6-2, 215 pounds, Cordova High

Banks rushed for 1,941 yards and 32 touchdowns in 2017, averaging 9.8 yards per carry, and helped Cordova High reach the Class 6A state playoffs. He was chosen to the TSWA all-state first team and played in the 2017 Toyota East-West All-Star Classic.

Pruitt on Banks: “At running back, he’s a guy that can make you miss, he can run with power, and he has home-run ability. He has soft hands, very physical guy, and for us I think it was a big need to get a big, physical back.”

JT Shrout
Pro-style quarterback, three-star, 6-3, 190 pounds, William S. Hart Senior High, Newhall, California

Shrout was the starting quarterback for only one season (2017), but threw for 3,064 yards and 27 touchdowns as Hart High went 8-4 and reached the state’s Division 3 quarterfinals. He had a standout performance last summer in the prestigious QB Collective Camp, and with the transfer of UT quarterback Quinten Dormady, could be in the mix this fall.

Pruitt on Shrout: “(He’s) a guy that was committed to another university (California). We found him when we were out in California, and Tyson (Helton, offensive coordinator) had some ties in the school, and we’re excited to have him.”

Brant Lawless
Defensive tackle, four-star, 6-3, 285 pounds, Nashville Christian School

Lawless was a 2017 Tennessee Titans Division II-A Mr. Football Award winner and was a finalist for the same award after his junior season in 2016. He helped Nashville Christian to its first state title in 2015 and finished his career with 110 total tackles in three years.

Pruitt on Lawless: “Brant has really good ability. As a basketball player, he has really good balance, body control, and can strike.”

Tanner Antonutti
Offensive tackle, three-star, 6-5, 260 pounds, Ensworth High, Nashville

Antonutti played tight end during most of his high school career before switching to offensive tackle as a senior in 2017. He also played defensive line and was chosen to the Tennessee Sports Writers Association’s all-state team in 2016.

Pruitt on Antonutti: “He’s 6-5, 280 pounds right now. He actually plays basketball. He’s very athletic, he’s played tight end in the past. He’s a guy that you can see has a frame that will grow and continue to grow. He’s a guy that wants to be at Tennessee.”

Kingston Harris
Defensive tackle, three-star, 6-3, 285 pounds, IMG Academy, Bradenton, Florida

Harris spent his first two season of high school at Orlando Christian Prep before transferring to national powerhouse IMG Academy for his junior and senior seasons. After posting 93 tackles in two years at Orlando Prep, Harris had 40 tackles in two seasons at IMG while having to split playing time on a loaded defensive line.

Pruitt on Harris: “Kingston is a defensive tackle, very athletic, long arms, and he’s going to be a big man.”

Paxton Brooks
Kicker, three-star, 6-5, 170 pounds, Airport High, West Columbia, South Carolina

Brooks was rated the No. 2 punter in the 2018 class by Kohl’s Professional Camps and was one of two punters in the 2018 Under Armour All-American game. His career-long field goal was a 51-yarder against North Augusta High in 2016, and last year he had big showings in the Southern Showcase Camp and the National Scholarship Camp.

Pruitt on Brooks: “When I looked at him when he came in, I didn’t know what position he played. He’s about 6-4, probably about 150 pounds. I saw him in the weight room yesterday and he looks like he’s bulked up. He’s probably about 162 now. He’s a punter, but he can actually do all three with field goals and kicking off. But probably his specialty is punting, and he’s really talented and we’re excited to have him.”

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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