Tennessee Football: Ranking the Vols' Top 5 Recruiting Targets for 2017
While Tennessee's resurgent success on the field and all the hype leading into the 2016 season haven't resonated yet on the recruiting trail, the Volunteers already have lured a slew of top talent onto campus for junior days.
Before long, you have to think coach Butch Jones will add to the two 3-star prospects (Georgia linebacker Mo Burnham and Mississippi tight end Chase Rogers) who've already pulled the trigger with commitments in the '17 class.
UT is on the list of many of the nation's top prospects, and while national runner-up Clemson has proved to be a nemesis on the recruiting trail so far, the Vols have to win some battles with top talent within state boundaries in a banner year for talent close to home.
The Vols are already behind on several top targets, including Knoxville receiver Amari Rodgers and Memphis running back Cordarrian Richardson, who've both committed to Dabo Swinney's Tigers. Also, California offensive lineman and UT legacy Kanan Ray pledged to UCLA.
If Ray and Rodgers follow through with these commitments, it'll mark the first time in Jones' tenure he's lost a legacy commitment the Vols have really coveted.
Despite the struggling start, the recruiting board for every team right now is massive. While it's difficult to sort through and assign rankings to the top players, it's becoming obvious who some of the Vols' top targets will be.
But narrowing it to a top five is a tough exercise. Without talking directly to Jones (who can't commit on unsigned prospects) this list is going to be subjective. For instance, this one doesn't even include Maleik Gray or JaCoby Stevens, who are without question important to UT's '17 class.
In his first two full classes, Jones proved he could start strong and space out commits. Just last month, he showed with the '16 haul that he can close strong.
What will Tennessee's 2017 class look like when all is said and done? That's anybody's guess. But let's take a look at the Vols' top five early targets based on need, geography and sheer playmaking ability of the prospects.
5. Tee Higgins, 5-Star Wide Receiver
Another instate player who seems to hold Clemson in high regard is Oak Ridge 5-star receiver Tee Higgins. The good news for the Vols is they're right in the thick of things, too.
The nation's 16th-ranked player overall pledged to nearby Tennessee the day after quarterback Hunter Johnson committed to Jones. Once Johnson flipped to the Tigers, he began heavily recruiting Higgins. Recently, the 6'5", 190-pound target backed away from his commitment to UT to refocus his recruitment.
Tennessee still has a strong chance of landing him, but the Vols now hold 50 percent of the 247Sports "crystal ball" projections along with Clemson. Considering Higgins is a star player in both football and basketball, other major contenders could emerge for his services before his recruitment is done.
UT is in for a dogfight if it is going to keep him at home.
Recently, GoVols247 reporter Ryan Callahan included Higgins in his "stock holding" department.
"A two-sport standout who also holds a basketball offer from Tennessee, Higgins admitted basketball will be a factor in his recruitment, and Clemson has emerged as a legitimate threat to the Vols," Callahan wrote. "But they remain one of the teams to beat for him, and that’s not likely to change."
Higgins' relationship with Johnson and Rodgers could wind up playing a significant role in his consideration of Swinney's Tigers. But he grew up a little more than a half hour from Knoxville, and there's a strong Vols influence in Oak Ridge.
Having family close by to watch him play should be an integral part of his decision as well.
The Vols aren't hurting for receivers after signing five in the '16 class, but the bottom line for UT is you can't have a national-level playmaker in your backyard and allow somebody else to steal him away.
A big year on the field should help with that, but getting Higgins' signature won't be easy. This one is going to go a long time with a lot of suitors in the mix.
4. Trey Smith, 4-Star Offensive Tackle
The last time Tennessee had a potential franchise offensive tackle in state borders, the Vols sweated out Drew Richmond's entire recruitment before flipping him from Ole Miss on national signing day.
Trey Smith isn't going to be a slam-dunk pull, either.
While most of the top teams around the Southeast have already offered the 6'5", 302-pound punisher, Smith seems to really like the Vols, Alabama and Clemson right now. Auburn and Ole Miss are firmly in the picture, too.
The elite tackle from University School in Jackson, Tennessee, is the 57th-ranked overall player nationally and the 10th-rated tackle. In a strong year for offensive linemen around the country, Smith is one of the best. That's why UT can't let him go somewhere else.
As already noted, the Tigers are having a lot of early success in Tennessee, flashing that national championship game appearance and luring commits. Alabama has experienced recruiting victories in that part of the state, too.
But the Vols always recruit well in Jackson, and Smith seems open to being the next West Tennessean in Knoxville. He told Callahan after his February visit to Knoxville: "I thought it was really good. To me, it was my best visit to Knoxville."
Since then, he's been to Alabama, Ole Miss and Clemson and dispensed high marks to all of those programs.
Smith also mentioned to Callahan that he'll probably make his decision around Christmas after his senior season, so this is another battle that should go a long time and the Vols will have to sweat. Like Higgins, this will wind up being a key national battle waged right within state borders.
Winning these kinds of trail wars could mean winning championships. Considering the importance of offensive tackles in any system, Smith is a must-get.
3. Deangelo Gibbs, 5-Star Defensive Back
There are few better athletes in the nation than elite 5-star defensive back Deangelo Gibbs of Grayson High School outside of Atlanta.
At 6'2", 204 pounds, Gibbs runs fast enough to be considered a cornerback prospect by 247Sports. Yet, he's also a big hitter who could play safety or even bulk up and be a dynamic linebacker on the collegiate level. Regardless of what position he plays, he's a star SEC prospect in the making.
It will end up most likely being a SEC battle to get Gibbs, much like was the case for his cousin and close friend Nigel Warrior, who picked Tennessee on national signing day.
The Vols have several aces up their sleeve in Gibbs' recruitment, though Georgia is the early 247Sports' "crystal ball" favorite to land the versatile player.
While Gibbs recently transferred to powerhouse Grayson (former home of Robert Nkemdiche and others), he played in the Peachtree Ridge High School defensive backfield last year with Warrior and UT cornerback signee Baylen Buchanan.
Gibbs is also the nephew of former Vols great Dale Carter (Warrior's dad), and he's made back-to-back visits to Knoxville in the few weeks since national signing day, including one without Warrior. This one seems to be trending strongly for the Vols.
All that said, Gibbs hasn't indicated he'll make a decision anytime soon. This time last year, Tennessee held a huge lead for Warrior's services until he took a step back and fell in and out of love with teams like Alabama and Georgia before ultimately choosing UT over Auburn.
Anything can happen.
With the family ties, the relationships Gibbs has cultivated with players and coaches from his multiple visits to campus and with the reputation that defensive backs coach Willie Martinez has for developing players, you have to believe UT will be in the thick of things with Gibbs for the extent of this cycle.
When he makes his final decision, an orange hat will likely be on that table.
2. Eric Crosby, 4-Star Defensive Tackle
When it comes to positional needs, few spots are higher on the Vols' list than defensive tackle.
UT struck out in the 2016 recruiting cycle on signing a high school defensive tackle in a smaller class.
The one the Vols did sign—JUCO lineman Alexis Johnson—is indefinitely suspended from the team while facing aggravated assault charges, according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel's Dustin Dopirak.
Considering players in the '17 class will be entering campus when Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie are going into their junior seasons, the Vols need to sign at least four defensive tackles in this class.
Perhaps the top target at the position is 4-star Ocean Lakes (Virginia) High School prospect Eric Crosby. Built like a powerful powder keg at 6'1", 285 pounds, he isn't the traditional-sized defensive tackle. But that hasn't stopped many of the top programs around the country from making him a priority.
Alabama, Florida State, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Clemson, Notre Dame and others want Crosby to play his college ball at their institutions. Thus far, the Vols are off to a good start in his recruitment. He's been to Knoxville several times, and with the opportunity to play early and often at UT, they'll stay in the mix.
Crosby isn't one of these prospects who are expected to take a long time to make a decision. According to Callahan, he's planning to pledge on April 22. If he follows through with that decision, it could be good news for UT.
In that article, Callahan says the Vols are "one of the favorites" and "in good shape" to land him. Getting Crosby and instate tackle Rutger Reitmaier early in the recruiting cycle would be huge for Tennessee's momentum at defensive tackle. Right now, those two appear to be the guys UT has zeroed in on early.
If Crosby pulls the trigger for Tennessee, that's going to be a huge early pickup for defensive coordinator Bob Shoop's unit for the future. With Danny O'Brien out of eligibility after the '16 season, there's playing time to be had for Crosby as a freshman.
He's big, strong and talented enough to be a force early. That's why he's such a major target at an important position of need.
1. Ty Chandler, 4-Star Running Back
When you consider the real possibility that Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara will both leave a year early for the NFL after this season, there's no bigger position of need than running back.
Life after "Run CMG," as they call themselves, may be dicey. But the "Chain Moving Gang" doesn't have to miss a beat, especially with John Kelly still in Knoxville and if the Vols land a pair of elite runners in this year's class.
Several players are interchangeable at this position, and if the Vols wind up getting a commitment from a potential star runner like 4-star prospects Cam Akers and Trey Sermon, they'd surge to the top of this board and fill a major need.
But the current prospect who seems primed to be a perfect puzzle piece to Tennessee's run-oriented offense is Montgomery Bell Academy running back Ty Chandler.
He's powerful, fast and fluid enough to wow everybody with his ability. At 5'11", 190 pounds, he runs a reported 4.4 40-yard dash, and he plays the highest-level competition in the state. He's a playmaker, and the Vols desperately want him in orange and white.
The biggest concern for UT is Ole Miss, where Chandler's father played. The Rebels also are surging in recruiting and on the field, and they have 86 percent of the current predictions for the prospect's signature.
A wild card in this, however, is Akers. The former Alabama commitment and nation's second-ranked running back is from Clinton, Mississippi, and the Rebels are expected to be right in the thick of it for his pledge, too.
Could Chandler and Akers wind up in the same backfield? If that happens, you'd have to give the early nod to the Rebels. But if those guys don't play together, UT has just as good a chance as any to land one of them.
Both of those programs are going to have major needs at running back. The biggest positive in Tennessee's corner other than being close to home is the fact that offensive coordinator Mike DeBord loves to run the ball. A lot. And UT will be putting Hurd and Kamara in the pros.
The Vols are targeting plenty of running backs right now, but getting a commitment from Chandler would not only be huge for momentum but represent a cornerstone of the class.
All quotes and information gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information gathered from 247Sports unless otherwise noted. All stats gathered at UTSports.com unless otherwise noted.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.