Re-Evaluating Tennessee's Recruiting Class After the 2014 Opening

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistJuly 14, 2014

UT linebacker commit Cecil Cherry participated in The Opening last week in Beaverton, Oregon.
UT linebacker commit Cecil Cherry participated in The Opening last week in Beaverton, Oregon.Credit: 247Sports

Thanks to Tennessee coach Butch Jones' dogged pursuit of the nation's top players, the Volunteers are prominently on the minds of many who participated in The Opening last week.

Following the ESPNU on-air commitment of 5-star defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie to the Vols, UT now has three pledges who took part in the best-against-the-best camp. Several other prospects who were in Beaverton, Oregon, are in Jones' future plans.

Thanks to McKenzie's commitment in the midst of a dominating performance at the event, the Vols yet again have momentum to fill out a class with an extremely limited number of spots.

UT currently has 20 pledges in a 2015 recruiting class that is ranked seventh in the 247Sports composite. Now, it seems the biggest question facing Jones isn't whether the Vols will fill spots with stars, but if there is enough room for everybody who may jump into the fold.

Let's take a look at what The Opening did to enhance UT's recruiting efforts and re-evaluate the position the Vols now find themselves in with the targets who participated.

Top Targets

Offensive tackle Matthew Burrell has the Vols on his radar after The Opening.
Offensive tackle Matthew Burrell has the Vols on his radar after The Opening.Credit: 247Sports

Because of the ripple effect of McKenzie's commitment, some star prospects who didn't have Tennessee on their periphery are now giving the Vols a closer look.

Case in point: The nation's No. 5 offensive tackle, Matthew Burrell, wasn't heavily considering UT prior to The Opening. He hooked up with McKenzie at the event, the two earned a mutual respect for one another, and they went at it during one-on-ones with UT's newest pledge handling him.

On Saturday, a couple of days after McKenzie's pledge, Burrell tweeted that he is going to reconsider the Vols, along with Virginia. Currently, Alabama and Ohio State are among the favorites to land him.

Elite players want to play with other elite players, and McKenzie's much-publicized performance could be a big boost to UT's recruiting efforts.

Getting in the thick of the race for Burrell would give UT another offensive tackle target on its board to go along with in-state lineman Drew Richmond. The Memphis product told BamaOnline's Charles Power (subscription required) that UT was one of the seven teams recruiting him the hardest.

McKenzie knows how big a need offensive tackle is for the Vols, and he already has begun to recruit Burrell as well as Richmond.

Some of Tennessee's top targets who showed out—such as Josh Sweat and Christian Kirk—may be long shots to sign with the Vols, but UT had plenty of more interested and attainable prospects participating.

In-state 4-star receiver Van Jefferson recently has received a flurry of 247Sports Crystal Ball projections for UT that have put the Vols in front of Ohio State as the favorite to land his verbal pledge.

247Sports' Josh Newberg (subscription required) said of Jefferson following the seven-on-seven pool play:

"Wide receiver Van Jefferson didn't get thrown to as often as others, but when he did he made it count. Nearly every catch Jefferson made went for a score, usually on a deep ball."

Jefferson told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required) he hopes to decide by the end of the month after returning from trips to his other two finalists, Ohio State and Georgia.

If Tennessee can survive those two visits, it seems to be trending.

Another Opening participant who is close to deciding on his college destination is quick Georgia linebacker Quarte Sapp, a 6'1.5", 200-pound outside 'backer who has 93 percent of his Crystal Ball projections pointing toward Knoxville.

He told 247Sports' Luke Stampini (subscription required) he has two July visits scheduled to Texas A&M and Tennessee and plans to make a decision before his senior season.

Despite this whiff on Texas running back Soso Jamabo, Sapp participated in events all week at The Opening, which isn't normally the best setting for linebackers to shine.

The recruitment of quarterback/athlete Torrance Gibson continues to be an odd one, as he went from participating in the Elite 11 as a quarterback to moving over to receiver some at The Opening, according to 247Sports' JC Shurburtt (subscription required).

The Florida product is the nation's No. 2-ranked athlete and a 5-star player. He's also a unique talent who has the ability to play quarterback but is such a dynamic athlete that he can play several other spots as well.

Gibson announced via Twitter on Sunday that he'll commit to his school of choice on Oct. 20.

Though UT has two quarterback commits, Gibson told SB Nation last week the Vols not only want him but also are recruiting him as a signal-caller. It's going to be interesting watching how his recruitment plays out over the course of the next three months.

Other UT targets such as 5-star defensive tackle Tim Settle and 4-star running back Bryce Love also participated in The Opening, as well as UGA defensive back commit Rico McGraw, who told 247Sports' Barton Simmons (subscription required) he was "still exploring my options."

Tennessee's Commits

With the commitment of 5-star defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie, UT already had an extremely successful event.
With the commitment of 5-star defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie, UT already had an extremely successful event.Credit: 247Sports

All three of the Vols' commitments who earned invitations to The Opening seem firm in their pledges right now, but it's the newest Vol who is becoming the most vocal recruiter.

Much like Vic Wharton, Jalen Hurd and Todd Kelly Jr. last year and Jack Jones and Andrew Butcher this season, McKenzie is burning up social media to recruit for UT.

After barking in the direction of Burrell and Richmond, McKenzie responded to a tweet from Pulaski, Tennessee, cornerback Cameron Ordway that he's going to visit Florida State.

After McKenzie committed to UT on Thursday night by putting on his signature bucket hat (orange and white to match the occasion), fellow 5-star defensive tackle Shy Tuttle tweeted this. He's heavily considering the Vols along with North Carolina.

The impact McKenzie's pledge already has had on recruiting is incredible. He's simply one of those charismatic characters everybody gravitates toward, and he's a vocal presence on social media.

Couple that with the fact that his father, Reggie, is an NFL general manager, and that exposure and networking capability bodes well for UT's recruiting efforts.

Following a week where McKenzie dominated on his way to winning the Defensive Lineman MVP of the camp, all the buzz surrounding him becomes even louder across the recruiting nation.

Simmons told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required) that even though McKenzie is already 247Sports' 10th-ranked player, he should move up in the next rankings:

"When we address the rankings, he will absolutely be in the discussion for moves up. I don't want to put a number on it or anything like that, but he helped himself, for sure, with his performance."

Not only is McKenzie's commitment supremely important on the field, it could pay immediate dividends on the recruiting trail.

Another UT commit who performed incredibly was 5-star receiver Preston Williams. Bleacher Report's Michael Felder said Williams put on a show and "showed that he's a dynamic pass-catcher that, in that Volunteers offense, is going to make big plays."

Here he is going up against 5-star cornerback Kevin Toliver.

Simmons told Callahan in the linked story from above that even though Williams ran a 4.6, he didn't expect the Lovejoy, Georgia, receiver to fall too much (if at all) from his No. 1 receiver ranking:

Heading into the week with Preston Williams being the number-one receiver in the country, I don't think we feel like we're wrong in that ranking. Other receivers were more productive, and I think we're going to have to have a discussion about who the number-one receiver is. But I think, when you talk about size and skill set, and just athletic ability, there's still no doubt that Preston Williams a freak. He is who we thought he was. He is that guy that we thought he was—just a different breed, a different specimen on the outside.

Simmons also discussed UT linebacker commit Cecil Cherry, who, despite some limitations in his lateral game, is a punishing interior linebacker who will be a big hitter on the next level.

Though some of the faster runners were difficult matchups for the 6'0", 230-pound linebacker, one of the plays of the week was when Cherry closed on running back Mike Weber and forced a fumble in one-on-one action.

Given their myriad needs all over the field even after a huge 2014 recruiting class, the Vols are swinging for the fences with some of the top prospects in the country.

Of course, UT won't finish with all of its top targets from The Opening. But if Jones can land a few of them to close the class, the Vols will finish once again ranked in the nation's top 10 classes. Most importantly, they'll be one step closer to competing on the field.

All recruiting rankings and statistics courtesy of 247Sports composite.

Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter here:



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