Tennessee Football Recruiting: Looking Ahead to 2016 Class
With this year's recruiting class all sewn up besides the last-second flip of offensive tackle Drew Richmond, Tennessee football coach Butch Jones spent much of the week before national signing day with an eye toward 2016.
It's just the latest illustration that the full-time job of recruiting hardly sleeps.
Even so, UT director of player personnel Bob Welton told VolQuest.com's Paul Fortenberry that he stole a 45-minute nap on Wednesday, something he hardly ever gets to do. Call it the calm before the year-round storm.
With the nation's fourth-ranked class in the books for '15, Jones, Welton and the Vols have wrapped up back-to-back top-10 hauls. They're already well on their way to another one next year with seven players in a class currently ranked eighth.
After classes that numbered 34 and 29 players the past two years, UT should sign a bit smaller class in '16, perhaps 20-22.
The way Jones has worked his wizardry with scholarship numbers the past two cycles, it wouldn't be a surprise to see UT get to 25 again. As Welton told Fortenberry, UT is now at a point with two big classes in its pocket where it can be more selective whom it chooses to be Vols.
Let's take a look at the biggest positional needs and the prospects already prepared to wear the orange and white for 2016.
After only taking one true safety in the 2015 class, the Vols are going to be on the market for at least two this year.
Thankfully for coach Butch Jones, he already has his team in the thick of the race for a trio of elite prospects close to home.
With Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil out of eligibility following this year, UT will be left with Todd Kelly Jr., Evan Berry, Devaun Swafford and Stephen Griffin, who are expected to be good enough to be part of the rotation.
It's also a possibility that either sophomore RaShaan Gaulden or incoming freshman Micah Abernathy could project at safety as well. Regardless, defensive backs coach Willie Martinez needs at least a pair of playmakers on the back end of his defense.
The list starts with the nation's fifth-ranked safety in the 247Sports composite rankings, Atlanta-Westlake's Nigel Warrior. Not only does the 6'0", 175-pound hard-hitter have one of the coolest names you'll run across in all of football, he's also the son of Vols legendary safety Dale Carter.
Warrior had the Vols out front early on before backing off that and resetting his recruitment. Georgia, Ohio State and Florida State are among the many that are poised to make him a priority.
Back in October, Warrior told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan of his father's desire for him to follow in his footsteps: "He would love for me to go there, but he's on my side whatever choice I make."
This one won't be an easy pull, but given Jones' success luring the legacies he wants, it's hard not to like UT's chances.
The other two big targets are right within the boundaries of the Volunteer State.
Nashville's Joejuan Williams may be listed as a cornerback, but he projects as a safety. He also has the Vols right at the top of his list, but LSU, Alabama, Auburn and Ole Miss are just a few that have offered the Father Ryan standout.
Fellow 4-star Donte Vaughn of Memphis is shaping up early on to be another Tennessee-Ole Miss battle in the Bluff City. At 6'3", 190 pounds, Vaughn has elite size and the skill set that has many SEC teams drooling.
Tennessee's list of safeties could expand depending on what the trio decides to do, but this is definitely where the focus squarely sits currently.
The Vols have huge needs at the position, and you'd better believe they all will be made aware of the ability to come in and play immediately.
Tennessee's national signing day came and went with it hanging on to prize 4-star receiver commitment Preston Williams despite a hard-charging surge by several other schools.
Williams will provide strength in numbers to a Vols receiving corps that looks absolutely loaded for 2015. But in this current cycle, they need to refocus their eyes on restocking the pass-catching shelves.
Von Pearson will be out of eligibility this year, as will Pig Howard. With his physical attributes, Marquez North could be a candidate to leave school early with a big junior year, and Vic Wharton and Ryan Jenkins are transferring.
All of a sudden, receiver becomes a big deal in the 2016 class. UT needs at least three at the position in this class, and four wouldn't be out of the question.
The targets begin with Elberton, Georgia, athlete Mecole Hardman.
Though Hardman can play both ways, UT wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator Zach Azzanni wants him on that side of the ball. According to GoVols247's Ryan Callahan, Hardman has referred to the Vols as his leaders for more than six months.
The potential addition of Hardman would be a break from the big, physical targets the Vols are used to adding. They need somebody who is hiccup-quick and can break plays for touchdowns. He'd be that guy.
Tennessee is fortunate again to have one of its primary targets at the position in state with 3-star Rontavius Groves of Nashville's Pearl Cohn High School. With the recent success the Vols have enjoyed in the Midstate, it'll be tough beating them for Groves.
Elite 6'1", 178-pound Florida receiver Eli Stove lists the Vols among the teams standing out to him at this early juncture, according to Callahan. Detriot's Donnie Corley also has listed UT in his early top five, as Butch Jones looks to continue his success in the Midwest.
Chesapeake, Virginia, receiver Grant Holloway says Tennessee, Virginia Tech and Virginia are sticking out the most for him early, according to VolQuest.com's Paul Fortenberry, and the Vols like him as a receiver.
Diondre Overton and Larry Collins are another pair of receivers with Vols offers who've mentioned UT as potential destinations. So, it's obvious UT has cast a wide blanket at the position, recruiting players from Florida to Virginia to Michigan.
Who will join the fray to fill the huge need?
Each of the past two recruiting cycles has been good to Butch Jones, as UT's head coach has landed an elite running back both years.
Jalen Hurd lived up to his former 5-star status during an impressive freshman year, and the nation's second-ranked JUCO running back, Alvin Kamara, is already on campus and ready to lend Hurd a hand for the next three years.
Even though UT signed two definite running backs in Kamara and John Kelly in this cycle and has two more (Jocquez Bruce and Vincent Perry) who could project there, the Vols are still short on numbers.
Hurd was the only scholarship running back returning, and senior transfer Ralph David Abernathy IV only has one year in orange.
So, signing two runners (at least) in the 2016 cycle is vital. And UT hasn't gotten off to the best of starts, as its top two targets have committed elsewhere.
North Carolina running back B.J. Emmons has pledged to Georgia already, and just last week, 5-star Tavien Feaster committed to Clemson over the runner-up Vols. Don't look for UT to go away quietly in either of those two battles, however, as it loves both players.
Despite the two big early blows, the Vols still are in on some marquee players. Two stand out.
They got some good news this week when 4-star Michigan running back Matthew Falcon told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan that UT was his No. 1, and he was planning on visiting in late February or early March.
"I may commit to Tennessee when I go down there," Falcon said. "I just don't know right now. That'll be something I have to talk over with my parents."
At 6'1", 215 pounds, Falcon has ideal size and speed to go along with being a first-team member of the All-Name Team.
Another intriguing prospect is bruising Woodward Academy running back Elijah Holyfield of Atlanta. He is the son of boxing legend Evander Holyfield, and he's been offered by many of the SEC's top schools.
With a lot of talent but short on numbers, UT may have a difficult time luring more than one elite back, but the Vols are going to try to sign at least a pair.
Depending on how the numbers shake out, it wouldn't be unrealistic to see the Vols take two more offensive tackles in this cycle to go along with current commitment Ryan Johnson.
The national signing day commitment of Drew Richmond took the pressure off needing to hit home runs in tackle recruiting for the 2016 cycle, but it didn't remove the need.
Chance Hall and Jack Jones give UT a pair of '15 pledges, and Venzell Boulware could get a look at tackle, too.
But with Kyler Kerbyson entering his last year at the position and the uncertainty of junior Dontavius Blair's long-term ability to be entrenched on the exterior, it's still a position where UT could stand to add a couple more quality bodies.
Tennessee already got the class off to a nice start with the commitment of Johnson from Brentwood Academy. The 6'6", 275-pound 4-star prospect chose the Vols over Alabama, Clemson, Kansas State and others. They'd love to pluck another player from the same line of scrimmage, too.
Bryce Mathews, whose father Jason was an NFL lineman, is a Texas A&M legacy, and the Aggies will be in the mix for his signature. But he is friends with Johnson, and the Vols will be right in the mix for the 6'5", 270-pound 4-star until he decides on a school.
It seems like every year the Vols pull a prospect or two from the talent-rich hotbed of Texas. This cycle, they have a unique tie to 6'7", 270-pound jumbo athlete Kellen Diesch, who currently has UT in his top two along with Baylor.
Diesch's parents once lived in Knoxville and are still big Vols fans. That tie could help Tennessee land an intriguing prospect who has the massive size to play on the line but the athleticism and dexterity to slide to tight end if necessary.
That's just the type of athleticism needed to play tackle in zone-blocking schemes.
There are several other names on a list that is sure to grow in the coming months, but Mathews and Diesch appear to be the most realistic right now.
Already in the Fold
The Vols already have seven pledges for the class of 2016, a diverse set that includes players who project to six different positions.
Obviously, a lot can change between now and next February, especially considering UT is going to have a bit of an abbreviated class, but as of now, the players holding down seven spots are as follows.
Austin Kendall. The 6'2", 205-pound pro-style passer from Waxhaw, North Carolina, was a massive pickup for the Vols in the early going, but they'll likely have to battle to keep him with Mike Bajakian gone to the NFL. He told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan that he was "pretty firm" following Bajakian's departure.
However, with his brother a walk-on at Kentucky and with Clemson having already offered, there are several teams on Kendall's radar. Also, UT took three quarterbacks in this past class, so that can't be attractive, either.
As of now, Kendall's solid.
Osborne, at 5'11", 183 pounds, is the kind of athlete who will only grow and improve as he approaches his senior season. LSU just offered last week, and he'll be one of the most sought-after corners in the country.
The Vols really must have seen something they loved in Phillips. It isn't every day that a school recruiting at UT's level takes a 5'7", 160-pound corner. He's the cousin of UT sophomore defensive lineman Dimarya Mixon and committed at last year's "Orange Carpet Day."
In addition to already securing commitments from the top quarterback and corner on their board, the Vols wrapped up top target Devante Brooks—a 6'5", 220-pound tight end—back on Jan. 15. They have been on him heavily with his future position coach Mark Elder leading his recruitment.
Outside linebacker Emanuel Bridges impressed recently at the Rising Seniors Junior All-Star Game in Atlanta, and though his offer sheet isn't huge yet, UT identified him early and secured a commitment. In-state athlete Dorian Banks rounds out UT's early commitment list.
There are plenty of moving parts, but with Kendall, Osborne, Brooks and Bridges, the Vols already have a strong start to the next cycle.
All recruiting information from 247Sports' composite rankings, unless otherwise noted.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.