It's Christmas Day, and Derek Dooley and his family are probably gathered around the tree in their West Knoxville home. It's a hectic time of year for Coach Dooley and the rest of the Volunteers staff with a December 30th bowl game on the docket and national signing day quickly approaching.
The wives of the coaches have likely taken care of most of the Christmas shopping this year, but that doesn't mean that Dooley and company don't have wish lists of their own.
It's not the kind of list you send to Santa, but each wish granted off this list for the next 40 days is bound to feel like Christmas revisited for the UT coaching staff.
Recruiting is where games are won and lost more often than not in the cutthroat world that is college football. This is especially true in the ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference, where the battles to gather talent from the fertile recruiting grounds that lie within the conferences boundaries is heated and sometimes downright ruthless.
Last season five of the top 10 and eight of the top 25 recruiting classes in the country were assembled by members of the SEC, according to Rivals.com. This season looks to be more of the same.
Currently, the University of Tennessee is listed at 22nd in Rivals' Class of 2011 team recruiting rankings. A ranking that is certainly respectable considering that there are 120 teams in the FBS.
However, a ranking that would place a team in the top 20 percent of the nation in recruiting places them in the bottom third within their own conference.
Yes, recruiting publications are relative and not the end-all-be-all of evaluating high school football talent, but there is little denying that the correlation between teams who recruit highly ranked players and those that win.
The Vols currently have 19 verbal commitments in the Class of 2011 and are likely looking at adding seven or eight more names to that list to fill out this class before National Signing Day on February 2nd.
This is Tennessee's recruiting big board in no particular order:
There isn't a reason to believe Tennessee has much of a shot with any of these guys, but stranger things have happened.
Ray Drew 4* GA DE:
This top-30 prospect nationally from Georgia has stated that Tennessee is in his top five, but there isn't much reason to believe that Tennessee has much of a shot here. He has been tough to get a read on and he says he loves UT defensive line coach Chuck Smith, but I would be surprised if he wound up in orange.
Lateek Townsend 4* SC LB:
Current UT commitment Pat Martin has been very actively recruiting Townsend on Tennessee's behalf but it doesn't look like Townsend is all that interested. It appears unlikely that he will leave the state of South Carolina and this one is shaping up to be a SC/Clemson battle, with SC holding the edge.
Timmy Jernigan 4* FL DT:
The Vols are doing everything they can to get Jernigan on campus next month, but that appears to be a chore in and of itself. His top three includes FSU, 'Bama and LSU and he hasn't made much mention of UT.
Giorgio Newberry 4* FL DE:
At one point, the Vols were very optimistic here. Newberry was wavering from his FSU commitment and visited in October and liked the Vols a lot. Over the last couple of months, however, Newberry seems to be less likely to change his mind. He has said he will make a final decision on signing day, so you can't completely count the Vols out.
James Wilder, Jr. 5* FL ATH:
Wilder is the son of former NFL RB James Wilder (1984 Pro Bowler) and is an absolute physical specimen. Unfortunately for the Vols, he is about as long of a shot as there is. There has been a whisper that he may be shopping around, but nothing tangible in that regard. I will be shocked if he doesn't sign with FSU.
Jermauria Rasco 4* LA DE:
Rasco is not taking visits until after bowl season, but the Vols are trying hard to earn a visit. The vols have a lot of ground to make up though and lot of people seem to think that Rasco is a lock to LSU. That won't keep Chuck Smith and the Vols from keeping at it though.
Lamar Dawson is arguably the most important prospect remaining on UT's board for this recruiting class. The Vols lack depth everywhere defensively, so the chance to land a dynamic play-maker on that side of the ball is something the Vols really can't afford to pass up.
Dawson has terrific size for a linebacker and for that reason he may even be asked to put his hand in the dirt as a rush end at the next level, but his ability to make plays from sideline to sideline will likely keep him at LB.
It has been extremely difficult to get a feel for Dawson and I have seen a lot of differing opinions on where Dawson appears to be leaning. Tennessee is a name that seems to be pretty consistently mentioned as in the mix and many feel that Tennessee is likely in the top two or three.
The Vols are scheduled to get the last official visit from Dawson on January 28th, and you can expect the Vols to put the full court press on Dawson during his time on campus.
Speed kills in college football and Florida running back Mike Bellamy has plenty of it. He will definitely have to add size in college to be an every down back, but any team lucky enough to sign him will undoubtedly find ways to get the ball in his hands.
Bellamy probably belongs on the longshot list, because he is a Clemson commit and most people seem to think that he will honor that commitment. However, Tennessee QB coach Darin Hinshaw has not given up here and Bellamy does like the Vols.
The question is: does he like the Vols enough to make the switch? The Vols will likely take at least one more RB in this class and Bellamy is a must take if the Vols can swing him.
Richardson is the top prospect in the state of Tennessee and is one of the top 100 prospects in the nation. He has unbelievable size and strength, and on the hoof he looks like the prototypical offensive tackle.
There are questions about his footwork and athleticism, which lead some to believe that he may wind up dropping inside to guard. He is, however, an absolute bulldozer in the run game and I have no doubt that it would take much time in a college strength and conditioning program for Tiny to master the intricacies of OT.
Throughout his recruitment, Richardson has been believed to be in a 'Bama/UT battle but recently this thing looks as wide open as ever. UT and 'Bama will both likely be finalists but UCLA, USC, Miami, and LSU are all making up ground here.
My heart of hearts still says Tennessee will prevail here, but this is far from the lock it may have been considered four months ago.
Wright is a top-10 player in the state of Georgia and is the prototypical DT. This kid is unbelievably quick coming off the ball and plays with an incredibly high motor.
Wright doesn't have great size for the position, but his athleticism would make him a real asset to anybody lucky enough to get his signature on signing day.
Rumors have Wright leaning towards Auburn, but apparently his parents really like the staff at UT. Clemson and Bama are also in the mix, but I believe this boils down to a battle between the Barners and Vols.
The Vols are slated for a January 14th visit and the Tigers get Wright on campus the 28th. Wright's recruitment will likely go down to the wire and will ride on Wright's official visits.
Jay Rome is one of the most physically imposing tight end prospects in recent memory. He has long arms and thick legs, and reminds me of San Diego Chargers TE Antonio Gates.
Rome could use work as a run blocker, but the raw physical talent that this former basketballer brings to the football field is something that has college coaches salivating. Rome will need some time to mature into a football player, but it will be difficult to keep a kid with so much athleticism off the field.
Rome has recently declared that Tennessee and Georgia have separated themselves a bit and it looks like it will be a Bulldog/Vol decision come signing day. The Vols are very thin at tight end and will probably look to add at least one more at that position before it's all said and done.
The Vols need immediate help in the defensive secondary and Lanier has the potential to provide exactly that. Lanier was a 3* recruit coming out of high school that signed with Auburn but was forced to go the JUCO route.
Lanier was set to honor his commitment to Auburn earlier in the year, but the Tigers apparently cut ties on the talented junior college corner and Lanier has now opened up his recruitment.
Lanier was previously planning on enrolling in school in January and the Vols were thought to be the de facto leader due to the shortened timeline, but now Lanier will not enroll mid-term. That means Lanier has the time to open his recruitment and isn't likely to make a decision until national signing day.
The Vols are still very interested and will continue to be a player here but watch out for Arkansas and look for Will Muschamp and Florida to get back in it.
Clear is an interesting tweener prospect from the state of Tennessee. Clear has been adamant that he wants a shot at tight end wherever he decides to go to college, but most project him winding up at offensive tackle at the next level.
Clear is a good athlete and does have the ability to be a tight end because of his body control and soft hands, but his lack of speed is a glaring weakness as a pass-catching tight end. If he does wind up making the move to tackle, his potential is through the roof.
Clear has a thick lower body and a lean upper body and would undoubtedly need to add mass before being a factor at OT, which may require a redshirt year but Clear's length and athleticism make him an absolute dream prospect.
The Vols are pretty confident with Clear and many seem to think this is going to be yet another battle between UT and Alabama, but one to watch here is Notre Dame. The Golden Domers have been increasing interest in Clear and may be able to steal an official visit if they decide to offer.
Jackson was a longtime commitment to the Miami Hurricanes, but started to waver over the past several weeks before deciding to officially decommit on December 5th.
Jackson is a road grading run blocker, but may lack the size to be an effective one on one pass blocker, leading most to believe he may project better at center than he does at guard.
The Vols could use some help on the offensive interior, and Jackson at one time was thought to be a silent commit to the Vols. However, recent interviews have given reason to believe that Miami may be back in the driver's seat since the hiring of Al Golden.
Jackson is a participant in the Under Armour All-American Game and has been planning on announcing the final decision there. His final three are Michigan State, Miami and the Vols. You can expect each fanbase to have a vested interest in Jackson's announcement.
Jeremy Hill is a bruising downhill runner from Louisiana. At 6'1", 220 pounds, Hill is physically ready to make an impact at the next level as a punishing runner in short yardage situations.
He doesn't have great speed and he isn't the most elusive back in the class, but he does have enough of a burst to make you pay if you give him the edge and just enough shimmy to make one cut and get vertical.
Hill was a longtime LSU commit, but decided to open up his recruitment earlier this month. The Vols are desperately in need of another running back in this class, due to a lack of production behind starter Tauren Poole.
Auburn seems to think that Hill is a lock to the Tigers, but Auburn fans generally consider every recruit they are in on to be locks to their program. The Vols are in very good shape here in what looks like it may be a UT/Auburn battle.
Leon Mackey is a big-bodied strong side defensive end from Hinds Community College in Mississippi. At 6'5" and 260 pounds, Mackey has the ability to come off the edge as an end but also the size to slide down to the interior if necessary, which is a luxury the Vols do not take lightly with their lack of depth on the defensive front.
Mackey is certainly no stranger to the recruiting process, as he has been through the gambit twice before when he was at Hargrave Military Academy.
Originally a Class of 2009 prospect, Mackey signed with Virginia Tech at first before deciding to return to Hargrave to get his academics in order. In 2010, Mackey signed a letter of intent with the South Carolina Gamecocks, but was once again forced to go another route due to academic problems.
This led Mackey to Hinds where he is going through his third recruiting experience. Leon has publicly declared the Vols his leader and there is reason to be optimistic that the Vols can pull Mackey on signing day, but once again there is concern with Mackey's grade situation.
If Mackey can get his academics in order, the Vols have a great chance of seeing him in orange next season.
Pagan is another supersized defensive end prospect who has the potential to add some bulk and slide inside, but for now it appears Pagan is better suited to come off the edge because he is explosive and ha very good raw pass rushing abilities.
Pagan is considered by some to be a little raw, but I have a tendency to believe that it would be difficult to redshirt someone with his kind of burst off the edge.
Pagan was at one time a Florida commit, but wavered for months before decommiting on November 29th. Pagan has been to campus in Knoxville many times and definitely likes Dooley and the Vols, but Clemson looks as though it may be the team to beat in this one.
The Vols are in good shape here, but they do have ground to make up on the Tigers.
There have been rumors that Dooley and defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox are interested in making the move to a 3-4 defense, and even though Wilcox may not be here next year, it remains a possibility.
One thing that the Vols would need to make that transition is a double team-demanding nose tackle and Mickey Johnson would certainly fit that bill. Johnson is a bit on the short side, but often uses that to play with leverage in the trenches and possesses very good lower body strength to hold his ground when facing those double teams.
This has been a very odd recruitment because Mickey has named several leaders at different times throughout the process including LSU, UCLA, Alabama and the Vols. There is also a growing concern that grades may be a major issue here and rumor has it that LSU has backed off for that very reason.
The Vols would definitely take Johnson because they need the interior help, but right now Johnson's grades make him a guy that we will have to take a wait and see approach on.
Unfortunately for Vol fans, it seems as though every position on the defensive side of the ball still has major needs to be filled with this upcoming recruiting class and safety is no different.
The Vols currently are looking at starting a former minor league baseball player turned 23-year old true freshman and a former walk-on at safety for December 30th's Music City Bowl, if Janzen Jackson is unable to return due to personal reasons. Even if Janzen does return, there has been whisperings that he may be moved to corner next season which makes safety a position of major need for the Vols.
Marcus is a rangy prospect with very good ball skills that could be a huge addition to this class.
He has been a South Carolina commit since November, but some feel the Vols still have a chance here. It will be a difficult pull for Tennessee against a Gamecock squad that has a lot going for them, but you can expect the Vols to be in this one til the end.
As I mentioned earlier, the Vols are definitely going to be in the market for another tight end before this class has been finalized and Fulse is another name that pops up on the Vols radar at that position.
He doesn't appear to be quite as high on the Vols list as Jay Rome or Cam Clear (if Clear is indeed a TE) but the Vols are still trying to stay active with this athletic tight end prospect.
Fulse is a very good route runner and has soft hands which should give him a chance to make an immediate impact as a pass catching TE, but he could use a little upper body mass to give him a leg up as a run blocker and make him an every down TE.
It looks like the Vols are in line for an official visit on January 21st, but little is known about where the Vols actually rank on Brandon's list. Watch out for Al Golden and the Canes to come on strong late in this one. There also may be grade issues here.
Dunaway is a guy who has unbelievable potential from just a pure athletic standpoint. He has solid measurables and is a workout freak, but he is very raw.
His athleticism and size make him a great candidate to play as a will linebacker in a 4-3 scheme or to play as a rush linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.
At this point it appears as though Dunaway is probably the Vols for the taking if they really want him. At this point that likely boils down to what Lamar Dawson does, because the Vols would like to take another LB in this class.
So right now I think it is safe to say the Vols lead here, but the issue appears to be about space and there also could be a grade issue here.
Moore is another name to watch on the Vols board at the safety position.
Coming out of high school, Moore was a Rivals 100 player signed with USC, but left school and wound up at Los Angeles Harbor Community College. Moore has the size and speed to play the strong side and the ball skills to play the free safety spot.
At one point it looked as if the Vols were out in front for Moore, but the fight to earn his signature has gotten much more difficult in the last month or so. Moore has gotten interest from Ole Miss, Miami, and Ohio State, but still seems to like the Vols a good deal.
Orta is another one of those rangy athletic safeties who is probably best suited to play the weak or free safety in college. He has solid speed and very good ball skills.
Orta is a little further down on the Vols list, but that doesn't mean the Vols don't want him. The Vols need plenty of help in the secondary and you can expect the Vols to be after Geraldo hard going right up until signing day.
Orta grew up as a fan of the Vols, but it appears that as of now UT is second to Clemson whom Orta was formerly committed to.
Caffey is an interesting combo back with good size and good speed, as evidenced by his 50.3 400-meter dash.
Caffey has the size and power to be an every down, between the tackles, kind of back as well as the speed to make a defense pay that gives him the corner.
Caffey is probably a fail safe for the Vols in the event they strike out on Hill and Bellamy, and many in the Vols camp seem to think that if the Vols offer they become instant favorites for Caffey. However, I think you have to watch out for Arkansas and South Carolina in this one.