The Tennessee Volunteers are looking for immediate-impact players, and the early enrollees who are trickling onto campus this week have a golden opportunity to capitalize on earning major playing time.
Head coach Butch Jones will welcome at least 13 mid-term signees into school for the spring semester, and UT can enroll up to 14. The Vols will reach that number if just one of a couple more potential candidates meet academic requirements.
Those new Vols hold a significant advantage over their classmates because they will have eight months with UT strength coach Dave Lawson, an opportunity to participate in individual workouts and—most importantly—a spring practice under their belts.
The major benefit for UT is some of its most talented commitments in a loaded 2014 recruiting class are coming in early. With those guys at the very least providing depth right away, the stars of the future will quickly become the names of the present.
If they come in and get to work early, they'll be instrumental in helping the Vols get to a bowl game next season. Let's take a look at the early arrivals who will work their way into the playing time rotation in 2014.
Given UT's terrible tight end play in 2013, Daniel Helm could play immediately
Daniel Helm was Tennessee's top tight end target, and it won't be long until he gets the opportunity to prove why.
This pass-catching specialist from Chatham, Ill., committed to the Vols over offers from Michigan and Ole Miss, among others, back in April. He has stayed true to that pledge ever since.
Performances on the camp circuit landed Helm the honor of being Rivals.com's No. 1-rated tight end in its entire recruiting class. His ability to split out or stay in and block will greatly benefit a Tennessee team that really struggled at the position in 2013.
Helm's versatility should allow him to come in and battle rising senior Brendan Downs for starting reps. Classmate Ethan Wolf is also an early enrollee, so UT tight ends coach Mark Elder will get to see his two future weapons immediately.
Butch Jones' offense needs a pass-catching target at tight end, so Helm has a great opportunity to settle into that role and become an immediate weapon for the Vols.
Jalen Hurd's commitment proved to be the biggest in UT's class
For the past three years, anybody who follows recruiting around Tennessee has known the name "Jalen Hurd."
When the state record-setting running back from Hendersonville pledged to Butch Jones and the Vols back in March, it really elevated the trajectory of the recruiting class and enhanced perception of the new coaching regime.
A season-ending shoulder injury Hurd suffered in the season opener did nothing to dampen the excitement of Tennessee fans who already have anointed him as the offense's savior. Hurd will enroll at UT this month and is expected to be fully healed in time to participate in spring drills.
Though he doesn't have the prototypical running back size at 6'3", 230 pounds, his combination of size, strength and speed is comparable to Alabama's Derrick Henry, who recently enjoyed a breakout performance in a Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma.
If the Vols can get similar production from Hurd, they may turn their offensive fortunes around immediately.
Josh Malone really closed UT's class with a bang
From being completely out of the picture for his commitment to the winning his signature, nabbing Josh Malone was the best recruiting work Butch Jones and the Vols did this year.
Their reward is an elite receiver who is polished enough to come in and start immediately. The Vols beat out Georgia and Clemson, among others, for Malone's pledge, and he will almost certainly be depended on for snaps in 2014.
He should have the ability to come in and battle junior college transfer Lavon Pearson and rising sophomore Jason Croom for the other outside receiver spot opposite Marquez North.
Malone has ideal size (6'2", 191 pounds) and speed (4.49) for an SEC receiver. He is also silky smooth when he changes direction and has incredible hands. Though he could stand to be a bit more physical, getting to UT eight months before his first collegiate snap is huge.
UT will depend on him immediately.
Malone has the type of attitude and work ethic that is conducive to making an immediate impact. With the Vols in desperate need of playmakers on offense, he'll have every opportunity.
Lavon Pearson is the immediate-impact JUCO receiver Butch Jones coveted
Tennessee was scouting other players when it stumbled across Feather River College receiver Lavon "Von" Pearson.
What the Vols believe they wound up signing is an electric playmaker who should see the field immediately. At 6'1", 180 pounds and with a 4.48 40-yard time (per 247Sports), Pearson has similar measurements to Chad Johnson.
His HUDL film makes it look like he was playing against Pop Warner competition in the California junior colleges.
Several major schools inquired about Pearson late in the recruiting game, but he remained committed to Tennessee and lead recruiter Tommy Thigpen. Along with Josh Malone, Pearson gives receivers coach Zach Azzanni a pair of all-world talents for UT's quarterbacks to throw to immediately.
How quickly Pearson learns the offense will dictate his playing time, but UT didn't sign him to ride the bench.
The Vols believe he'll be a valuable player on offense next season, and his leaping ability and speed could make him one of the steals of the class.
Dontavius Blair could step right in and play left tackle for a UT team needing offensive linemen
The departure of Antonio "Tiny" Richardson to the NFL opens a major door for Dontavius Blair to come in and start immediately at left tackle.
All starting five offensive linemen in 2013 will be gone next year, so there is plenty of playing time available as UT will try to build depth and quality immediately.
Blair—a 6'8", 302-pound specimen—was a major coup for Butch Jones and offensive line coach Don Mahoney, who landed his commitment over teams such as Auburn, Texas A&M and Florida State.
He has the size, strength and ability to come in and play right away, and UT desperately needs him to.
A lot of UT's offensive success will hinge on Blair's readiness to play. If he can show the massive potential that made him a heavily recruited player, it will answer a major question for the Vols.
Regardless, it's hard to envision a scenario where Blair isn't on the field in 2014. There simply aren't many viable options at tackle.
The Vols have a need for an athletic defensive tackle like Owen Williams
Tennessee's search for junior college defensive tackles may not be over, but the Vols were very happy to see a huge need met when they got Owen Williams to flip from Texas Tech to Tennessee.
Williams isn't the prototypical SEC defensive tackle at just 6'1", 280 pounds, but he is a relentless pass rusher who has very good athleticism and an elite first step. According to 247Sports, he has a 4.85 40-yard time, which is excellent for a defensive tackle.
Having him on the field will enable the Vols to put another, bigger nose tackle on the line alongside him.
That's a luxury you can afford when you've got athletic linebackers, and with the Vols upgrading the talent on the second level, there should be a lot of scenarios where Williams is on the field.
There isn't a lot of depth at the position currently. The Vols only have Trevarris Saulsberry, Danny O'Brien and Jason Carr returning at defensive tackle, so there are definitely important reps to be won.
Williams will play a ton next year, and UT needs for him to consistently get in the backfield and disrupt plays.
UT needs cornerbacks, and the Vols love the potential of Payne
Cameron Sutton enjoyed a breakout freshman season for the Vols, but they really didn't have any other consistently good cornerbacks on the roster.
That's why it's essential for a player like D'Andre Payne to come in at mid-term and be thrown immediately in the mix for playing time.
The 5'9", 175-pound defensive back from Washington D.C., committed to the Vols back in April and has stuck with his pledge.
He has the athleticism and speed to come in and upgrade the Vols' talent at corner, a position where they have struggled since the early 2000s. His reaction to the ball and ability to change direction is elite, even if his size isn't.
It would be difficult for Payne to come in and start on the outside, but with UT having a miserable year finding nickelbacks, there is playing time available there.
He and RaShaan Gaulden could compete for that spot, but Payne may carve an early niche for himself there being an early enrollee.
Payne will almost certainly see the field in 2014. It's just a matter of how much.