Peachtree Ridge High School 4-star safety Nigel Warrior may be the highest-profile prospect remaining on Tennessee's recruiting board because of his family ties to the Volunteers. But another Georgia star is even more vital to UT's immediate success.
Derrick Brown—a 5-star defensive tackle from Lanier High School in Buford—is scheduled to take his final official visit to Knoxville this weekend, and UT needs to make a huge impression on him to get him to sign over the likes of Auburn, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi State.
Not only is Brown an elite prospect who possesses unique athleticism for a 6'4", 317-pound trench battler, but he is also one of the most college-ready linemen in the class. Considering he plays at the very position where the Vols need more depth, that makes him the player who can turn a good class into a great one.
With less than a week remaining until national signing day, Tennessee appears right in the thick of the race for Brown.
There was a bit of confusion on Thursday when 247Sports' Keith Niebuhr reported Brown had a top three of Auburn, Alabama and Tennessee followed by Brown refuting that he'd actually named a trio at the top.
Derrick Brown5️⃣ @DerrickBrownAU5
Haha never gave my top schools "that's why it said inside source" lol these fans funny af😂1/28/2016, 3:19:22 PM
Regardless of his top three or a top five, the Vols are in the mix. With a chance to woo him and wow him this weekend, it would be unwise to write off coach Butch Jones in luring him to UT.
That would be massive for the Vols if it happens.
Yes, UT struck the DT jackpot in the 2015 recruiting cycle when the Vols landed Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie. While defensive tackle is one of the most difficult positions to play right away in college football, both of those guys accomplished that feat.
Beyond them, though, Tennessee doesn't have a ton of depth and talent at the position. The Vols certainly don't have the rotation that championship-caliber teams possess.
In 2016, Danny O'Brien will be a senior, and Kendal Vickers will be a redshirt junior. Quay Picou hasn't yet shown he's a viable option on the interior, which means a player of Brown's ilk almost assuredly will step right in and earn meaningful reps as a true freshman.
As UT has proven over the past two years, a team can never have too many DTs. In 2014, the Vols played with virtually a three-man rotation. Last year, Owen Williams, Vickers and McKenzie had to pick up far too much slack when Tuttle went down with a season-ending injury against Georgia.
Simply put, the Vols need more able bodies on the interior.
They've already signed one player in JUCO transfer Alexis Johnson, who should replace Williams in the rotation, but he's the only defensive lineman they've got in this entire class.
Without Brown, UT may strike out at defensive tackle the rest of the way, and a team never wants to go a full cycle without a high school lineman. There are still a few other options on the board who could fill that void, but many of them are long shots.
Brown represents UT's best remaining hope to get another tackle. If they don't sign him, the Vols may be forced to sign as many as five defensive linemen in next year's haul.
The big-time big man from Lanier isn't just coveted because of Tennessee's major need at the position; he's also an elite prospect who would be not only adding a great player to UT's class but also subtracting one from another SEC rival.
That's always an underrated aspect of recruiting.
By his sophomore season, Brown could slide into a starting role or at least get as many snaps as Tuttle or McKenzie.
With his size, athleticism and strength at the point of attack, he's the perfect weapon to have at the 3-technique in new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop's system, and it would be a major coup to get him.
Most experts think UT is a long shot to land him on signing day, when he's scheduled to announce at 3 p.m. in front of a national audience on ESPN. Though Georgia is still the favorite on the 247Sports Crystal Ball, most of the late predictions have gone to Auburn due to his relationship with Rodney Garner.
Still, it's hard for anybody (such as 247Sports' Barton Simmons and ESPN's JC Shurburtt) to talk about where Brown may go without mentioning Tennessee.
Barton Simmons @bartonsimmons
Went ahead and made my #CrystalBall for Derrick Brown to #Auburn. Watch out for the #Vols though https://t.co/XwUrYMxbyV1/27/2016, 3:32:19 AM
JC Shurburtt @jcshurburtt
Here's the bottom line on Derrick Brown- #Auburn definitely is trending and could get him, but don't count out #UGA or the #Vols just yet.1/28/2016, 5:25:10 PM
Only one of the 33 predictors have him playing his college days in Knoxville, and that person is writing this article.
But Jones has closed strongly every year he's been at UT, and with Brown's genuine interest in Tennessee, the Vols getting the last visit and this setting up to be a big weekend, they have a chance to sway him.
"I just love Tennessee, man," Brown told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan recently. "I just love being up there in that environment itself. But when you just sit down and actually talk football, that’s good as well."
Those may wind up pretty words for a team that finishes second.
But with Brown and his family heading to Knoxville this weekend, getting to spend time with Shoop and seeing how they fit in not only with the staff but also with the players and the city, it sets up for the steal.
It's going to be a two-day audition to get four years of a future star's services in Knoxville, and given Tennessee's needs, Brown has the potential to be one of the biggest sweepstakes in Jones' tenure on Rocky Top.
Win his commitment, and the Vols take another step toward building elite depth all over the field. Lose out, and defensive tackle will continue to be a spot where UT is in a precarious position with injuries.
Warrior is a flashy potential superstar in the defensive backfield who could follow in the footsteps of his All-American father Dale Carter. Tyler Byrd is another DB with a huge upside. Jonathan Kongbo and Landon Dickerson would provide rankings boosts and star quality at their respective positions.
All those guys would be great additions to Tennessee's recruiting class.
But getting Brown in orange would pay dividends beyond rankings, beyond name recognition and beyond boosting Jones' already-sturdy recruiting rep. He'd give Tennessee a player who could be on the field at meaningful moments right away during a year when the Vols expect to compete for important things.
Tennessee can still sign a strong class without Brown being part of it, but if the Vols get him, it would immediately elevate the 2016 group of commitments to the same plain as the past two seasons.
And he would help the Vols continue to take steps toward competing for championships.
All quotes and information gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information gathered from 247Sports unless otherwise noted.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.
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