For all his success on the recruiting trail, Tennessee coach Butch Jones desperately needs to win one more major battle—the one for elite in-state receiver Josh Malone.
The 6'2", 190-pound prospect from Gallatin is expected to choose between the Volunteers and Clemson on Wednesday. Malone is just the type of immediate-impact player that UT must keep home to return to prominence.
While Georgia and Florida State also are considered finalists, Malone told Volquest.com's John Brice and Paul Fortenberry (subscription required) shortly after winning Tennessee’s Class AAA Mr. Football Back award Monday that either the Vols or Tigers will be the choice.
Really, just the family environment and both of them like to pass the ball and they both have opportunities to come in and play early. So, I have to make the right decision and give the rest up to the Lord and hope he leads me to the right decision.
Jones has been impressive convincing prospects of a Tennessee turnaround that has not yet occurred.
The Vols have compiled a class of 32 players with a consensus No. 2 ranking among the four major recruiting services. But there aren't many offensive difference-makers of Malone's ilk on UT's commitment list.
Jalen Hurd—a running back from Hendersonville, Tenn., given 5 stars by 247Sports—is the bell cow of the class. Four-star junior-college wide receiver Lavon Pearson is the other offensive skill-position player who appears to have the ability to play right away.
For whatever reason, UT has struggled keeping receivers in the fold in this cycle.
The Vols have suffered attrition from current Miami commit Brandon Powell, 4-star Eric Lauderdale and 4-star Dominique Booth, who was told he couldn't enroll at mid-term, according to 247Sports' Steve Wiltfong (subscription required).
Of the Vols' current commitments, Pearson and Vic Wharton are expected to begin their UT careers as receivers. Evan Berry and Neiko Creamer are multipurpose athletes who could play the position. But nobody currently committed has as high a ceiling as Malone.
With his size and speed, Malone has all the tools necessary to step right in opposite UT freshman receiver Marquez North. The fact that he is a December enrollee only amplifies the desire to get Malone in orange.
North's first season on Rocky Top was up-and-down, but the former star prep receiver finished with 38 catches for a team-high 496 yards. The Vols also saw the emergence of sophomore slot receiver Alton "Pig" Howard.
Other than those two, UT struggled putting competent receivers on the field. Part of it was the team's quarterback problems, but none of the receivers got consistent separation from defenders.
Malone provides that ability, and he's smart and savvy enough to come in and start.
Georgia coach Mark Richt certainly thinks so. Taking advantage of the new NCAA rule that allows coaches to comment on players if they've signed a financial aid agreement with the school, Richt praised Malone. According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Michael Carvell, Georgia's coach told reporters:
I think the guy is a dynamic player. I really do. I think he’s a guy that could come in as a freshman and make a difference, especially if he comes in at the mid-year, which I think is his plan for wherever he goes. With the knowledge that he’d gain in the spring and the summer, and to have a guy like Chris Conley to mentor him, he could take advantage of his skill sets, which I think are outstanding. He has great speed and great height. He’s a very sharp kid, and comes from a great family. We’d love to have him.
Comments from a coach who has recruited as successfully as Richt ring loudly. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney also spoke to Scout.com's Hale McGranahan about Malone (subscription required).
Jones chose not to speak to the media about the prospect, but there's no denying the importance of landing him. The Vols had five assistants in attendance for Malone's awards ceremony Monday, according to GoVols247's Ryan Callahan, and Jones was scheduled to visit with Malone later in the evening.
UT has visited with Malone numerous times over the past two weeks. UT knows how important he is to this class, and he's equally important to perception.
Jones already has taken advantage of a bumper crop in-state, receiving commitments from six players from Tennessee. While the solid pledges of Hurd and Todd Kelly Jr. guarantee UT will sign two of the state's top three players, Malone is another potential jewel at a position of major need.
Too many times recently, UT has lost elite talent from in-state players like Marlon Brown (Georgia), Jalen Ramsey (Florida State) and Vonn Bell (Ohio State).
Tennessee's return to prominence starts on the recruiting trail, and it's waged in winning battles like the one that is coming to a close for Malone. If UT loses out on a player of his caliber in its backyard, it won't be received well, even if it wouldn't doom a stout recruiting class.
The underlying needs for Malone are secondary to the glaring need on the field for UT. The Vols have recruited Malone as heavily as any prospect on their board for a year now, and it's important that they close the deal.
If not, the Vols will be scrambling for an impact receiver until February.