Tennessee Football: Position-by-Position Grades for 2016 Recruiting Class
The paint has dried on the 2016 recruiting class two weeks after national signing day, and now the Tennessee football team and everybody else can begin to examine their hauls and set the focus for next year's group of prospects.
For the Volunteers, the new class came in 14th nationally by the 247Sports composite ratings, which means it wasn't as highly regarded as coach Butch Jones' last two classes.
But with limited numbers, UT did just fine. The top of the list of 21 commitments is loaded, and the back end has plenty of upside.
That doesn't mean the Vols met all their needs, however.
Tennessee fell short on the defensive line, and the class of two is in jeopardy of being trimmed even further with JUCO defensive tackle Alexis Johnson suspended indefinitely after being arrested for aggravated assault and false imprisonment this week, according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel's Dustin Dopirak.
If Johnson's career never gets off the ground, it'll be a big blow to the Vols' defensive tackle depth in '16 and moving forward.
In other areas, however, the class soared. Skill-position players and the exterior of the offensive line are two areas that stand out. The secondary haul may be the best on paper in school history.
All in all, it was another strong year on the recruiting trail, even if the Vols didn't make quite as much noise throughout the cycle with commitment after commitment. A huge finale that saw them sign Nigel Warrior, Tyler Byrd, Latrell Williams and Jonathan Kongbo in the final 36 hours solidified a good class.
Let's take a look at position-by-position grades for Tennessee's recruiting class, taking into consideration whether needs were met and how many players the Vols could afford to sign in a small class.
Jarrett Guarantano is not only a talented signal-caller in his own right and rated the nation's top dual-threat quarterback by 247Sports, but he's also perhaps the best system fit in the entire class for what the Vols want to do offensively.
There may not be a better quarterback to run Jones' power-spread attack from the past couple of cycles.
Guarantano's upside is massive. He's at least as fast as current UT quarterback Joshua Dobbs, though whether or not he has Dobbs' freelancing ability remains to be seen. One thing is certain: Guarantano has a much stronger arm.
There's a reason why Ohio State and plenty other marquee teams made him a priority.
At 6'4", 201 pounds, Guarantano has exceptional size and a wiry frame that could hold even more weight. He's somewhat raw, but his dynamic potential could wind up being huge for the Vols in the near future. A year learning the system and working in the weight room would be great for him.
The best thing for the Vols is that they can afford to redshirt Guarantano and bring him along slowly. The Oradell, New Jersey, product doesn't have to be the quarterback of the present with Dobbs, Quinten Dormady and Sheriron Jones on campus. That gives Guarantano a much better chance to be the QB of the future.
Not having him step onto the field until he's ready can be great for his psyche and better for the team.
Guarantano showed in his senior season in a huge game against IMG Academy that he has the leadership skills to perform well on a big stage. But those lights will shine brighter in Neyland Stadium. If he develops the way he should and comes along, he should battle for the starting gig once Dobbs leaves.
When you get a player with Guarantano's level of talent at the most important position, you deserve a high grade.
The Vols secured a running back with a bright future in Naples, Florida, 4-star Carlin Fils-aime, but they arguably fell a bit short at recruiting the position.
Tennessee coaches don't think that. They elected to sign just one runner in the 2016 cycle, and though they flirted a bit with eventual Utah signee Zack Moss late in the game, that courtship wound up not being serious.
Why the Vols didn't go after another runner is somewhat puzzling. After Alvin Kamara gave serious thought to leaving for the NFL after his redshirt sophomore season this year, he'll almost certainly go next year. Also, bruiser Jalen Hurd will be eligible to leave as well.
It's a real possibility the Vols will be without their two star backs after this season, and John Kelly would be the only proven back on the roster.
The Vols are after several star running backs in the 2017 class and desperately need to sign at least two of them. They're going to be young at the position after this year.
But, enough about who they didn't get. Tennessee is thrilled with Fils-aime, a 5'11", 180-pound back who may not wind up being an every-down back but has the same home run-hitting ability of Kamara.
Given how the Vols love getting their runners in space and on the perimeter, it's likely Fils-aime will fill Kamara's role once he leaves. The recruit had offers from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Ohio State and many other top-shelf teams, so he could be a standout prospect in Knoxville.
Then, there's the added bonus that he was an integral reason why the Vols signed his close friend Byrd away from Miami.
Fils-aime is a quality player, so the mediocre grade is nothing against him. But the Vols may wind up wishing they had another experienced body at the position after this season.
Say what you want about Tennessee's group of five wide receiver signees not being very highly rated, but the Vols' focus throughout the class was to upgrade the speed at the position.
They did that and then some.
Yes, Marquez Callaway is the only 4-star receiver in Tennessee's class, but he has the potential to be special. The 6'1", 177-pound athlete was recruited by some of the nation's top teams and could step right in and play with all the receivers the Vols lost.
Considering Marquez North, Von Pearson and Johnathon Johnson are no longer on the roster, there is playing time available, and Callaway's ability is evident.
Another player who stands a strong chance to play right away is JUCO transfer Jeff George. The 6'6" receiver is already on campus and will go through spring drills, which will be invaluable to him and the Vols. They need big targets with North gone and Jason Croom moving to tight end.
The other three receivers weren't household names among recruiting experts, but they could all play key roles—especially the speedy ones. And the Vols have two real blazers to go along with Callaway.
Latrell Williams is one of the fastest players in the entire 2016 class, and Louisiana pass-catcher Corey Henderson can scoot, too. They really go a long way toward meeting that huge speed need, and Jones wasn't shy about discussing the team's short fall after he'd secured some difference-makers in that department.
He told GoVols247's Wes Rucker:
We still felt that there was room for more speed, more athleticism, and we were gonna swing the bat. When you add a Latrell Williams—a 10.6 100-meter guy, a 4.3, 4.4 40 guy—that adds to the competitive element within position groups. It adds to your special teams. So, again, you can never have enough speed and athleticism.
Finally, Brandon Johnson flew a bit under the radar, but the Florida product had a strong offer sheet that included Georgia, LSU, Ole Miss and Miami.
He has the bloodlines to match, too. His father, Charles, was an All-American catcher for Miami's baseball team before playing major league baseball for the Marlins. Johnson's uncle is Cincinnati receiving great Chad "Ochocinco" Johnson, too.
So, the Vols' receiver class may be filled with 3-stars, but they're players who addressed big needs for the team. How they turn out remains to be seen, but it's hard not to like what Tennessee did on the trail.
Tennessee lost tight end Alex Ellis to graduation after the '15 season and has bunch of question marks in Croom, Jakob Johnson and Neiko Creamer to go along with Ethan Wolf at the position going into this year.
All of those guys have the ability to help out in a big way, but none of them is a proven contributor at tight end.
Enter a pair of incoming freshmen who could find themselves in key roles right away.
Knoxville native Austin Pope and Brooks won't burn up the rankings, but they have the potential to be really good players on the next level.
Pope flew under the radar a little, but the nation's 35th-ranked tight end began to blow up once he started the camp circuit. When the hometown Vols offered, however, he shut things down and began to focus on making his dream school better by recruiting his peers.
Brooks was one of UT's first commitments, but the 6'5", 255-pound Washington, D.C. product has endured his share of hardships since then. He tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his knee—the second time he's suffered the injury.
The Vols stuck by him, and he is still expected to be a big part of UT's future at the position. With a full recovery, Brooks may wind up being the prospect he was before the injuries when he was a 4-star recruit whom GoVols247's Ryan Callahan called "elite."
With the injury comes question marks, but Brooks has immense ability. Pope has high upside as well. Though he doesn't play premier competition at the Christian Academy of Knoxville, his school has produced receiver Josh Smith and offensive lineman Brett Kendrick in the past four years. Both play key roles for UT.
The uncertainty doesn't make this haul a slam dunk, but they could wind up being a strong duo down the road.
With the interior of the offensive line already in strong shape, the Vols desperately needed to sign some players who could develop into quality offensive tackles.
The urgency to get guys who could play right away wasn't as dire as recent years because Chance Hall and Drew Richmond appear to be bookends for the near term.
That allowed the Vols to recruit players with the kind of projectable frames that can produce strong, athletic tackles in a couple of years.
Tennessee's trio of tackles started trickling in early in the class when instate 4-star prospect Ryan Johnson gave the Vols a sterling start to the 2016 group.
Then, on New Year's Day, the Vols celebrated a blowout Outback Bowl win over Northwestern by taking a bit of a flier on skinny 3-star Nathan Niehaus, who has the frame to add 50 pounds and be a big-time tackle in a couple of years.
Finally, the Vols accomplished something difficult 10 days later when they went into the University of Florida's backyard in Daytona Beach and beat the Gators straight up for one of their top targets, Marcus Tatum.
Both Tatum and Niehaus need redshirts, weight rooms and carbohydrates, but they have high upsides. Barton Simmons, 247Sports' director of scouting, told Callahan he was impressed with UT's tackle haul:
It's easy to find guard bodies, and it's not as easy to find a tackle skill set. They got, I think, three guys that have that skill set. They may not be as ready to play from Day One as some of the guys they've gotten in recent years. But typically the great tackles are guys that take some time to develop, so I think that's not necessarily an indictment of those guys. And I think Ryan Johnson, because he committed so early and was so quiet about his recruitment, flew under the radar for a lot of the process but is really one of the better offensive tackles in the Southeast.
This class could have pulled an "A" had Landon Dickerson pledged to the Vols rather than Florida State, but, in the end, Tennessee was happy enough with the haul it got to quit pressing for Dickerson's commitment late.
Fans may not look at the Vols' trio of tackles and talk about how strong it is right away, but in a couple of years, it's going to look even better. All three players have the ability to anchor a strong line down the road.
This grade could wind up a whole lot better if Johnson's eligibility survives the pending investigation, but, even so, the Vols still would have fallen somewhat short in defensive line recruiting.
And that's even with them signing the nation's top-ranked overall JUCO player in defensive end Kongbo.
Tennessee wanted to sign at least three defensive linemen in this recruiting cycle and fell short of that. To the Vols' credit, they were dealt some difficult luck in the endeavor.
Kongbo was committed at one point, in which case the Vols could have focused their attention on other players. But he decommitted after receiving offers from Alabama, Southern Cal and Florida State. Though UT wound up getting him in the end, coaches essentially had to re-recruit him.
Not only that, but D'Andre Christmas-Giles decommitted and signed with Texas. With a lot of emphasis on Derrick Brown (who signed with Auburn), the Vols wound up striking out on signing a high school defensive tackle.
Now, with Johnson in some hot water, it's possible Tennessee's most shallow position from a season ago will have to remain that way in 2016, too. If he and Kongbo play, that's two key pieces to immediate success, though it would have been nice for the Vols to add another able body.
The bottom line, however, is Kongbo is special. He is arguably one of the top overall players in the entire class, and with his speed and quickness off the edge and his body type (255 pounds), he has the ability to be the same kind of instant-impact player as Alabama's Jarran Reed was.
Reed will almost certainly be a first-round NFL draft pick this year, too.
Those are lofty expectations for Kongbo, but the best thing about him is he has three years of eligibility remaining, and Vols defensive line coach Steve Stripling is one of the best at his job at developing players.
There's nothing wrong with the two players the Vols did bring in, but with one of their futures uncertain and without another option for the interior, it's hard to give recruiting at this position a strong grade. The Vols must now sign five or six linemen in 2017.
Another area where Tennessee didn't need a lot of help in the '16 recruiting class was linebacker.
With a slew of sophomore potential difference-makers such as Darrin Kirkland Jr., Austin Smith, Quart'e Sapp and Dillon Bates, as well as junior Cortez McDowell, already on the roster, the Vols could focus their attention elsewhere.
The two players that Tennessee signed should be able to help soon.
Daniel Bituli is the star of the position haul. At 6'4", 230 pounds, he has great size and athleticism and perhaps even the versatility to project on the inside, outside or even defensive end depending on how he develops.
According to the 247Sports composite ratings, he was the state's third-ranked prospect, and it was a major coup for the Vols to hold off teams such as Auburn and Ole Miss for the Nashville Christian School's standout.
Bituli is one of the most intriguing players in the entire class because of his ability to project to several different positions and give the Vols help where they ultimately need it. He's a bit like former Vol Curt Maggitt in that way, and it wouldn't be out of the question to see him play a similar role.
A player whose commitment came seemingly from out of nowhere was that of Ja'Quain Blakely, who committed back on Aug. 1, 2015, after visiting the weekend before for "Orange Carpet Day."
The Moultrie, Georgia, linebacker had offers from Florida, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Michigan State and several others, but he committed to Tennessee and stuck with that decision. At 6'2", 220 pounds, he has exceptional athletic ability and looks like a perfect fit for an outside linebacker in Bob Shoop's scheme.
UT's linebacker class may not be big in numbers, but there's plenty of talent and upside in each of the two players the Vols did sign. They aren't needed right away, but both could develop into valuable players.
That's the only way to describe the class of defensive backs the Vols were able to convince to come to Knoxville and join an already talented group of players that includes Cameron Sutton, Rashaan Gaulden, Todd Kelly Jr., Justin Martin, Emmanuel Moseley, Evan Berry, Malik Foreman and Micah Abernathy.
Shoop and defensive backs coach Willie Martinez will have a bunch of shiny, new toys to play with in 2016. The Vols signed arguably the best group of secondary players in the country, right up there with schools like LSU.
It all starts with Warrior, a 4-star legacy who is the son of Vols legend Dale Carter. UT had to battle all the way up to national signing day for him but persuaded him to keep it in the family rather than go to Alabama, Georgia, Auburn, LSU, Ohio State or his pick of anywhere else.
Byrd was another brilliant coup, as the 5'11", 194-pound star athlete flipped from Miami the night before national signing day to join his buddy Fils-aime in Knoxville. The star of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl has the ability to step right in and play right away.
Because of those two elite players, Marquill Osborne may slide through the cracks a little. He shouldn't.
Ohio State tried to slide in and steal the Cornelius, North Carolina, product, who was one of Tennessee's earliest commits and stayed strong to his pledge. The Under Armour All-American enrolled midterm, so he'll have a head start on Warrior and Byrd, and his skill set is conducive to early playing time.
That trio can go against any three defensive back signees in the nation, but that isn't all Tennessee got.
Baylen Buchanan is another prospect who the Buckeyes wanted, as did Oklahoma, Louisville, Georgia and others. But the son of former NFL star "Big Play" Ray Buchanan will play his college ball in Knoxville along with high school teammate Warrior.
Finally, Desmond Henderson is a JUCO cornerback who is also already on campus and has been in college for two years, so that makes him a valuable asset and a good bet to earn immediate snaps.
It's simply a ridiculous cluster of talent for the Vols, who are trying to build their own "No Fly Zone" in the Smoky Mountains.
The back end of UT's defense won't take a back seat to anyone.
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.