Tennessee Football Recruiting: Breaking Down Top 2015 Targets at Each Position

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistApril 22, 2014

Tennessee Football Recruiting: Breaking Down Top 2015 Targets at Each Position

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    The great Mick Jagger once said, "You can't always get what you want," and that holds true more often than not in the world of recruiting.

    The Tennessee Volunteers and coach Butch Jones were handed a sobering dose of that reality Monday night when, within mere moments of one another, a pair of badly needed prospects on the offensive line fell off the board as Chuma Edoga committed to USC and Marquel Harrell chose Auburn.

    That 0-for-2 swing was an uncommon feeling for Jones, who landed most of his top targets in a 2014 recruiting class that featured 32 commitments and finished in the top 10 on all four major recruiting services.

    The Vols already are off to a strong '15 start, securing 11 pledges in a class 247Sports ranks as No. 5 nationally.

    But unlike last year's class where the stars aligned, a slew of in-state talent resided close by and a handful of legacy recruits committed to UT, this year's cycle has been more difficult.

    If Jones is going to repeat with a top 10 class, he's going to have to land some more top targets left on the board. Let's take a look at some of the highest priorities the Vols are focusing on at each position.

    All recruiting information from 247Sports, unless otherwise noted.

Quarterback: Torrance Gibson

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    It's not every year when an elite athlete such as Torrance Gibson comes along at quarterback.

    But 247Sports' top-ranked dual-threat signal-caller is the complete package.

    Gibson is 6'4", 200 pounds and runs a 4.5 second 40-yard dash. He has a strong arm, speedy wheels, and while his mechanics aren't perfect, the ceiling is so high that the nation's top programs don't care.

    Tennessee got in on the ground floor of the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., product's recruitment, and the Vols have been rewarded by being prominently mentioned as one of Gibson's leaders.

    He told 247Sports Recruiting Insider Ryan Bartow (subscription required) last week that the Vols stick out to him along with Auburn and Ohio State.

    While UT is heavily involved with quarterbacks Zach Gentry, Travis Waller and Brandon Wimbush, Gibson is the biggest prize.

    Pulling a player of Gibson's ilk out of Florida will be difficult, and getting him away from a couple of programs that have recently experienced major success will be even tougher. But UT is firmly in the mix here.

RB Eric Swinney

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    With Tennessee securing a trio of highly coveted running backs in the 2014 class in Jalen Hurd, Derrell Scott and Treyvon Paulk, signing a high-profile runner this year could be tougher.

    That hasn't stopped the Vols from going after a few of the nation's best.

    One of those who stands out is Tyrone, Ga., running back Eric Swinney. The 5'10", 188-pound prospect plays at the same high school (Sandy Creek) that recently departed UT runner Rajion Neal attended.

    The Vols have other runners they'd probably accept a commitment from at any time, such as Taj Griffin, Bryce Love and Nyheim Hines, among others, but Swinney seems to fit what Jones wants to do offensively.

    He's also a different running back than any of the three UT got last year.

    Auburn, Ole Miss, Florida State and Georgia are also factors in his recruitment, and Swinney hasn't said anything recently about committing anytime soon. If the Tigers make him a priority, they'll be tough to beat.

    But the Vols are going to be in this one until the end.


FB/HB Chandler Cox

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    In his first year at Tennessee, Jones didn't run a lot of offensive sets that featured a H-back/fullback.

    That doesn't mean he wouldn't like to.

    The Vols didn't have a player good enough to line up in the H-back role in 2013, and that's why UT is hot on the trail of 6'1", 225-pound Apopka, Fla., fullback/athlete Chandler Cox in this recruiting cycle.

    Cox told 247Sports' Luke Stampini (subscription required) last week that Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama and Auburn are currently at the top of his list. An overwhelming 86 percent of his 247 Crystal Ball projections are pointed toward the Gators, and Cox is certainly from the heart of Gator Country.

    But he raved about his visit for the Vols' spring game to Stampini.

    Tennessee was just awesome. The facilities were awesome. I knew Tennessee and Kentucky would have the facilities, but the city of Knoxville was great...They are building a program there, you can tell. They had 68,000 at the [spring] game. It was cool walking down the tunnel and walking onto the field. It was loud and it was awesome. On Sunday I went back to Tennessee to finish up.

    That doesn't sound like a Gator lock, and the Vols will keep applying the pressure, hoping to lure Cox from the Sunshine State.

WR Van Jefferson

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    Wide receiver is not a major priority for the Vols. They've got a young, talented stable already on campus.

    But in-state 4-star target Van Jefferson of Ravenwood High School is a major prospect who is seriously considering the Vols.

    The biggest problem for UT is that Jefferson is not a typical in-state talent. His father is Tennessee Titans wide receivers coach Shawn Jefferson, and the family isn't a native of Tennessee. So, Van's recruitment has been a national affair.

    So far on 247's Crystal Ball projections, 78 percent of the prognosticators have him going to Ohio State, and 17 percent have him being a part of James Franklin's first full Penn State class. Franklin recruited him while he was the head coach at Vanderbilt.

    The Vols may have an outside battle for Jefferson, but he was on campus in early March and told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required) that the Vols were recruiting him hard.

    Tennessee's top priority at receiver is to hang on to 5-star pass-catcher Preston Williams, who is wanted by virtually everybody in the nation. But Jefferson would be a nice complement to the corps.

TE Hale Hentges

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    One of the longer shots on this list is 6'6", 230-pound Jefferson City, Mo., tight end Hale Hentges, who was at one time strongly considering Tennessee.

    While the Vols are still on his list, the 4-star's recruitment has blown up, and most of the experts on 247Sports believe Ohio State, Missouri, Stanford and Oklahoma are all big factors with him with no mention of UT.

    Tennessee is attempting to sign a tight end in this class, but that has been difficult after such a strong haul in the 2014 class, which included Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm—a duo who impressed coaches this spring as early enrollees, and who will factor heavily and immediately into the rotation.

    OUInsider's Joey Helmer (subscription required) noted this week that Hentges plans to make a decision before his senior year, and you'd think UT would need to get him back on campus again to have a shot.

    Signing a tight end in this class is a luxury for the Vols, but it's obvious they're trying to court a few of the nation's best, and the No. 2 overall tight end Hentges is certainly one.

OG Marquel Harrell

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    It was a bit surprising when Marquel Harrell committed to Auburn on Monday night after recently listing Tennessee as his favorite.

    But the Vols have struggled going head-to-head with the Tigers in recruiting for a while now.

    Considering Harrell's connection to the twin brothers Evan and Elliott Berry (he is friends with them, and all three are from the same high school in Atlanta-area Creekside), UT was considered a heavy favorite.

    Now, the Vols have to regroup and find a few more interior targets. UT already has commitments from Zach Stewart and Jack Jones in this class, and both are projected to play guard. Harrell was the top target remaining at the position.

    The Vols won't stop recruiting the 6'3", 295-pound mauler, but since he already has decommitted from Ole Miss once before pledging to Auburn, it's difficult to see him flipping again.

    Look for more options to emerge soon.

OT Drew Richmond

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    One of the most important targets remaining in the entire class is Memphis University School offensive tackle Drew Richmond, a national recruit with the chops to be a franchise player.

    The 6'5", 320-pound tackle is big and athletic, and he is rated as the nation's No. 8 tackle in this class, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. The Vols have been courting him for more than a year.

    Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss and Ohio State are expected to be major factors in Richmond's recruitment, but he has visited Knoxville multiple times, and UT is making him a major priority.

    The Vols have several major X-factors in their corner. On top of being the home-state school (something Richmond has previously noted as important), one of his best friends, two-way lineman Charles Mosley, committed to UT as part of the '14 class.

    According to GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required), Richmond plans to announce his decision on Sept. 9. The Vols will apply heavy pressure until then, and Richmond is well aware of UT's dire tackle situation.

    "That's what really stands out to me about UT—the chance for me to come in and play early," he told Callahan.

DE Kyle Phillips

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    Part of the reason Butch Jones had such a roaringly successful 2014 recruiting cycle is he owned the state of Tennessee in recruiting.

    That's still up in the air for this season, though the Vols already have secured a pledge from 247Sports' top-ranked player in the state in athlete Jauan Jennings.

    Defensive end Kyle Phillips is an elite force from Hillsboro High School outside of Nashville, and he just happens to fit one of UT's biggest needs as a disruptive edge rusher. At 6'4", 255 pounds and with a listed 4.61 40-yard dash, essentially everybody in the nation wants him.

    Currently, 86 percent of his 22 predictions on the 247Sports Crystal Ball favors Tennessee, and the other 14 percent gives Vanderbilt the nod. Phillips' mom is former Lady Commodore basketball player and current Tennessee State athletic director Teresa Phillips.

    Phillips recently named his top 10 schools (subscription required), and the Vols are making him a huge priority by putting ace recruiter Tommy Thigpen on point for his recruitment.

    Jones has done a great job recruiting Phillips thus far, but some of the Vols' biggest nemeses such as Alabama, Auburn, Florida and Georgia are also high on Phillips' list.

DT Kahlil McKenzie

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    Tennessee is in on some stud defensive tackles in this year's cycle—guys like Tim Settle, Shy Tuttle, Sterling Johnson and D.J. Jones.

    But perhaps the biggest current target at that position is 6'4", 316-pound 4-star legacy Kahlil McKenzie of Concord, Calif.'s powerhouse De La Salle.

    McKenzie is the son of former Tennessee linebacker and current Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie and the nephew of former UT offensive lineman Raleigh McKenzie. All his family members are Vols fans, and even though he has said he grew up liking Oklahoma, UT is strongly at the top of his list.

    He told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required) that Tennessee was "looking really good" to him prior to his visit last weekend.

    I really like everything they have to offer. Their fans, you can't really beat them right now. They're pretty crazy, and they're awesome. You research their tradition, their history, and you start to like some things. And, of course, my dad, he was like, 'It was great for me.' That was a long time ago, and I know things only can get better. I love the people of Knoxville. Knoxville is just a really cool place. Tennessee in general is a really nice place. I’ve got family in Chattanooga and Nashville, so I’ve been all over Tennessee.

    So far, Jones is 6-for-6 in convincing Tennessee legacies to join the Vols. McKenzie would be one of the biggest needs yet, supplying a hulking presence in the interior of the line that could contribute immediately.

ILB Ricky DeBerry

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    One of the most intriguing prospects in the entire 2015 class is Richmond, Va., linebacker/defensive end Ricky DeBerry.

    He's also one of the toughest recruits to gauge.

    At one point, he has been rumored to go to Ohio State, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Clemson, Virginia and Virginia Tech, and there still doesn't seem to be a clear-cut leader. The Vols still should have a puncher's chance to convince him to come to UT.

    As a matter of fact, Rivals.com's Adam Friedman (subscription required) said this week that UT and Clemson lead for DeBerry.

    While DeBerry is listed on 247Sports as a potential outside linebacker, at 6'2", 245 pounds, there's little chance he wouldn't move inside for UT if he stayed at that position.

    Many recruiting gurus believe his biggest upside is at defensive end, and he has the frame to hold much more weight.

    Regardless of what position he plays, DeBerry is one of those athletes who is a national target that everybody wants on their roster. UT needs to get him back on campus soon, but if the Vols do, they'll be right in the mix for his commitment.

OLB Roquan Smith

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    Tennessee and linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen are attempting to go into a traditional Auburn-Georgia battleground to land elite outside linebacker Roquan Smith.

    The 6'2", 205-pound 4-star athlete hails from Macon County High School in Montezuma, Ga., and (predictably), the Bulldogs and Tigers are extremely high on his list, along with Florida, Alabama and Tennessee.

    This is shaping up to be a good, old-fashioned SEC battle for a no-doubt SEC talent.

    The Dawgs are turning up the pressure, and they're drawing (literally) interest from Smith. According to Dawgs247's Gentry Estes (subscription required), Smith is one of the players UGA has sent hand-drawn pictures to.

    Smith told Ryan Callahan of GoVols247 (subscription required) back in March that he was "really considering" the Vols, but it remains to be seen if that interest will be enough to lure the nation's No. 71 overall prospect out of Dawgs/Auburn country.

CB Micah Abernathy

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    Coveted cornerback Micah Abernathy isn't a Tennessee legacy, but he does have an important connection with Jones.

    Jones recruited Abernathy's brother, Ralph David Abernathy IV, to Cincinnati, and he has blossomed as the Bearcats' do-it-all offensive star. Now, Jones hopes he can lure the younger athlete in the family to Knoxville.

    It won't be easy.

    The 6'1", 185-pound defensive back is rangy and super talented. He has offers from Alabama and Georgia, among others, and the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs are Tennessee's biggest competition. Notre Dame and Ohio State also will be factors.

    Abernathy hails from Norcross, Ga., just outside of Atlanta, and he attends the Greater Atlanta Christian School. While UT has had success in Atlanta for years, that's still Bulldogs country.

    UT has a couple of very important cornerback targets on its board, including in-state corner Cameron Ordway, who recently has seen his recruitment take off. But Abernathy is the staff's biggest priority at the position, and he would fill a huge void for the Vols.

S Rico McGraw

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    Ensworth High star Rico McGraw shocked a lot of people when he committed to Georgia and new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt way back on Jan. 16.

    At the time, he was one of Alabama's biggest priorities, and most thought his recruitment would be a Crimson Tide-Tennessee battle.

    Despite his commitment to the Bulldogs, neither of those two other teams have stopped recruiting him. McGraw is perhaps reciprocating a little bit of the interest with UT, as he visited Knoxville for the Orange and White Game, according to GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required).

    At 6'0", 190 pounds, McGraw has the size and versatility to play either cornerback or safety on the next level, but I think he projects to have a higher ceiling at safety. While he still seems relatively firmly committed to UGA, the Vols are going to keep the pressure on him.

    It's vitally important to Jones to keep the best players in-state, so he will try to sell McGraw on staying home. Whether or not he listens remains to be seen.