Tennessee Football Recruiting: Meet the Volunteers' 2016 Class

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Tennessee Football Recruiting: Meet the Volunteers' 2016 Class
Darren Abate/Associated Press

Right about the time Thompson-Boling Arena was erupting as Tennessee's victorious Volunteers basketball team was upsetting Kentucky on Tuesday night, super-athlete Tyler Byrd settled in on Periscope to drop another dose of Big Orange excitement onto UT fans.

The 5'11", 194-pound cornerback flipped from Miami to Tennessee, following his close friend and longtime running back commitment Carlin Fils-aime to Knoxville.

Twitter erupted with elated Vols fans and writers trying to balance the biggest win of the year on the hardwood with an elite commitment on national signing day eve.

It was a sign of big things to come over the next 18 hours. 

Coach Butch Jones added Nigel Warrior, Latrell Williams and a 6'5", 264-pound cherry on top when Jonathan Kongbo pledged to Tennessee early Wednesday afternoon.

That's the kind of feel-good stretch that wasn't lost on anybody, including one of the basketball Vols who helped start the good vibrations, then soaked up signing day as a UT football fan:

Indeed, it was a great couple of days to be a Tennessee Vol.

Jones' final class of 21 prospects ranked 14th nationally by the 247Sports Composite. It filled huge needs at defensive back, wide receiver and offensive tackle. The Vols rebuilt their stable of speed and landed their quarterback of the future as well as a potential dynamic running back.

They got immediate-impact help with four JUCO signees, and while falling a bit short on the defensive line, two of those (Kongbo and Alexis Johnson) should immediately settle into the rotation.

Let's take a closer look at the class.

Tennessee's 2016 Signing Class
Player Rating Position Position Rank
Nigel Warrior 4-star S 4
Jarrett Guarantano 4-star DUAL QB 1
Jonathan Kongbo 4-star SDE 1 (JUCO)
Tyler Byrd 4-star CB 10
Marquez Callaway 4-star ATH 3
Marquill Osborne 4-star CB 17
Alexis Johnson 4-star DT 2 (JUCO)
Daniel Bituli 4-star OLB 15
Ryan Johnson 4-star OT 25
Carlin Fils-aime 4-star RB 12
Marcus Tatum 3-star OT 42
Brandon Johnson 3-star WR 84
Ja'Quain Blakely 3-star OLB 39
Jeff George 3-star WR 6 (JUCO)
Desmond Henderson 3-star CB 3 (JUCO)
Corey Henderson 3-star WR 98
Austin Pope 3-star TE 35
Devante Brooks 3-star TE 36
Baylen Buchanan 3-star CB 60
Latrell Williams 3-star WR 109
Nathan Niehaus 3-star OT 88

247Sports

New coaches make recruiting ripples

Prior to the recruiting homestretch, Jones did a little luring of his own to the coaching staff that wound up paving the path for the grand finale on the trail.

While defensive coordinator Bob Shoop's prowess will be felt right away on the field, it was former Miami interim coach Larry Scott's hiring as the new tight ends coach that wound up being a home run. 

The veteran coach immediately injected a dose of orange into a South Florida region that is prospect-rich and also had been devoid of any Tennessee buzz in recent years. Scott helped UT get a foot back in the door on Byrd and Williams, two players he'd had some involvement with while coaching the Hurricanes.

That legwork wound up helping produce two flips. 

Jones didn't mince words when discussing Scott's impact—and the fallout—on Wednesday, according to Volquest's Paul Fortenberry and GoVols247's Wes Rucker:

If Scott's prowess was felt this early with basically just a month on Rocky Top under his belt, imagine how much the Vols can benefit from him recruiting the region moving forward.

Shoop, meanwhile, wasn't discussed as a primary recruiter much, but it's clear prospects felt comfortable with him. Focusing on defense down the stretch, the Vols landed Warrior, Kongbo and Byrd after Shoop's hiring.

Immediately following his hire, a then-uncommitted Kongbo tweeted his approval:

He recommitted and signed with UT on Wednesday, and it's hard to imagine the nation's top-rated JUCO player would have done so over the likes of Florida State, Alabama, USC and Ole Miss had he not been comfortable with the coordinator.

So, Jones' hires were big hits with prospects.

NFL bloodlines run deep in Vols class of '16

The sons and nephews of former Tennessee football players have been very good to Jones and the rebuilding of UT's football program the past few years.

Now, it's time to see if NFL legacies pay the same dividends.

Jones secured signing papers from four prospects in this year's recruiting class who had family members play in the NFL. Two of them are the sons of former All-Pros.

The group, of course, is led by Warrior. Every Vols fans knows by now that his father is UT legend Dale Carter, who also starred with the Kansas City Chiefs.

His high school teammate will also join him in Knoxville. Baylen Buchanan committed to Tennessee on New Year's Day and held strong even after an offer from Ohio State. His father is former Atlanta Falcons great "Big Play" Ray Buchanan.

Brandon Johnson is the son of former Miami Hurricanes All-American and Florida Marlins All-Star catcher Charles Johnson, but he's also the nephew of Chad "Ocho Cinco" Johnson. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano's father, James, played briefly for the San Diego Chargers after his career at Rutgers.

Biggest immediate impact

With so many positions dripping with talent from Jones' past couple of classes, the Vols don't really need a lot of quick fixes on the roster. The 2016 edition of UT should be ready to compete for championships almost as it is.

But there were a couple of needs that had to be addressed, and the Vols did it.

Warrior, Byrd and Alexis Johnson all could carve roles right away along with tight end Austin Pope and the other JUCO players. But Kongbo should provide the biggest impact.

The defensive lineman from the Republic of Congo via British Columbia, Wyoming and Arizona is big, athletic and versatile. He can line up on the edge opposite Derek Barnett and help Tennessee fill the void Curt Maggitt vacated. 

Sure, Corey Vereen, Kyle Phillips and LaTroy Lewis all have the ability to start at end, and the additions of Darrell Taylor and Andrew Butcher will be big, too.

But Kongbo is a special talent. It's also not out of the question with his body size and with three years remaining that he could play some in a 3-technique, too.

Whether Kongbo plays inside or out, one thing's for certain: He'll play. A lot. 

Johnson will, too, just based out of sheer need. But Kongbo is going to be part of the defensive line rotation because he's simply too spectacular a player to keep on the sideline.

Kongbo was such a huge part of Tennessee's class that it became a team effort luring him to Knoxville rather than Oxford, Mississippi, down the stretch. Derek Barnett called him early in the day.

Then, Todd Kelly Jr. tweeted that he'd contacted him. Running back Alvin Kamara even got on Periscope with him during the national signing day festivities being videoed in Knoxville before Kongbo had made up his mind. 

The nation's top programs wanted him, and there's a reason for that.

Rivals.com national analyst Mike Farrell noted in the moments after he committed to the Vols over Ole Miss and the nation's top-ranked player Rashan Gary pledged to Michigan that those two teams got the players of the day:

That's high praise. "King Kongbo" has a cool nickname, but he's got the game to back up the moniker. The Vols hope he causes as much destruction as his namesake.

Star of the class

There are several guys who can carry the banner as Tennessee's bell cow of the class. Given the long-term potential of players such as Guarantano and Warrior, as well as Kongbo, Marquill Osborne and Marquez Callaway, there's a lot of talent in this year's stable.

But Byrd is a next-level playmaker.

When placed on the field with the best prospects in the country at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, he showed out. 

Players like him just stick out like a swollen thumb on film. He may not have the best 40 time, but when the pads go on and he gets in the game, he has another gear. The explosion he shows, his hip fluidity and his coverage skills make him elite. 

With a little polish, he's got the ability to be a shutdown cornerback and a first-round NFL draft selection. He's long and lanky, yet effortlessly and aggressively goes after passes. 

As exceptional as Warrior can be, Byrd just looks like a slightly better player on film, and he was playing against great competition while at Naples (Florida) High School, too.

Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman interviewed an anonymous Power Five assistant for a story on prospects who could play right away back when Byrd was committed to Miami, and the assistant opined of Byrd: "He's just a baller. Watch him in the Army All-American Game. He blocks a kick and returns it. Then, he picks off a pass. He's a great competitor."

Byrd steps into a secondary just brimming with talent, so it's possible his biggest help in 2016 will be on special teams. But he's the kind of player who, with a little coaching, won't be able to keep on the sideline.

Whether it's next year or not, Byrd's ceiling to shine is higher than anybody else's in Tennessee's class.

Sleeper of the class

Again, a few different players fit this bill in a class that isn't as top-loaded as Jones' past couple of national signing days have boasted.

Offensive tackle Marcus Tatum initially comes to mind, but just because he's a 3-star doesn't mean he's a sleeper. Virtually the entire SEC offered the undersized lineman with a big frame and high upside. He ultimately chose UT over Florida, Alabama, Miami, Auburn and others.

But in the truest sense of the word, a definite sleeper who could shine is Pope.

The 6'4", 219-pound tight end is the nation's 655th-ranked player and 35th-ranked tight end, according to 247Sports' composite rankings.

When he camped at Tennessee and earned an offer, Pope was right on the cusp of breaking out. But, at the time, the attention he was beginning to draw hadn't materialized in offers. Still, once the hometown Vols offered the Christian Academy of Knoxville standout, it didn't take him long to accept.

He told GoVols247's Wes Rucker why recently:

As far as regretting anything? No, I don't. A lot of guys like to get 30 offers and all this other crap, and they give out their top-15 list and their top-10 list. I don't find that realistic, you know? Right before I committed to Tennessee, Miami was gonna offer me. TCU got in the mix. Michigan State in the mix. USC was gonna offer me. Georgia was gonna offer me.

The only other realistic place I could have seen myself playing was Georgia. That was the other place I thought I could play at. But I haven't had any regrets about any of it. Getting all those offers, that's just to build yourself up, and I know who I am and where I belong. And that's why I decided to commit to Tennessee.

Pope comes from a small private school that also provided the Vols with receiver Josh Smith and offensive tackle Brett Kendrick. The newest addition hopes to crack the rotation like his former two teammates.

He has the ability to, maybe as soon as 2016. 

The Vols are looking for a tight end to back up Ethan Wolf following Alex Ellis graduating. While there are some candidates already on the roster such as Jakob Johnson, Neiko Creamer and perhaps even jumbo receiver Jason Croom, Pope will get a shot.

He already has the attention of his position coach, according to Scout.com's Cory Gunkel:

Pope is a little bit undersized and could use a year in the weight room, but it won't be long before he's on the field. He's too talented not to be.

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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