Tennessee Football Recruiting: What Maleik Gray's Commitment Means for the Vols

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistJune 12, 2016

Credit: 247Sports

With one huge tweet Sunday afternoon, Maleik Gray single-handedly flipped the narrative on Tennessee's sputtering recruiting returns for the 2017 class.

Now there's renewed reason for excitement for the Volunteers' recruiting class as summer camp begins to heat up.

The 6'2", 186-pound safety from La Vergne, Tennessee, is the nation's fifth-rated player at his position and No. 57 overall, according to the 247Sports composite rankings. In a loaded year for talent within state boundaries, he is the fourth-rated player in Tennessee.

He chose UT over Florida State, Clemson, Georgia, Alabama, USC and many others, and his commitment surged Tennessee up 14 spots in 247Sports' recruiting rankings to 22nd.

"They have just been there since day one," Gray told VolQuest's Brent Hubbs and Austin Price. "I enjoy everything about Tennessee. I love it football-wise. I love it academically. It's just always felt like home."

That breeze from the Smoky Mountains was a sigh of relief from UT fans who follow recruiting religiously when Gray's commitment became public. Though Vols head coach Butch Jones can't mention Gray by name, he sent out a celebratory tweet with an obvious connection to the news:

Thus far, things haven't added up for the Volunteers in in-state recruiting for 2017. UT looks like it's trending upward on the field following 2015's 9-4 campaign, and Jones has been steadily increasing the Vols' win total each year in Knoxville.

With Tennessee losing a lot of talent to the NFL draft following the '16 season and with this being arguably the best crop of Volunteer State talent in a decade (if not ever), the casual football fan may think Jones would be racking up commitments on the recruiting trail.

After all, he's done a banner job of keeping top players at home in his first three full recruiting classes.

But, for whatever reason, things haven't gone that way just yet.

The Vols are right in the thick of things for multiple top-notch Tennessee high schoolers, but Gray is just the second player from Tennessee on the Vols' current commitment list, joining kicker Brent Cimaglia.

Elite Oak Ridge receiver Tee Higgins pledged early to UT but backed off that commitment, even though he recently referred to the Vols as his current leader, per 247Sports' Ryan Callahan.

Two players the Vols wanted—receiver Amari Rodgers and running back Cordarrian Richardson—chose Clemson over Tennessee. Also, UT was dealt a significant blow this week when defensive tackle Rutger Reitmaier selected Oregon after long referring to Tennessee as his leader.

So Gray's commitment was needed if for no other reasons than perception and momentum. But it's bigger than that. Let's take a look at why it was such a big deal.

Where's the Gray Area?

The best thing about getting a player of Gray's caliber is his immense upside. He's an elite defender who is big, rangy and fast. Though he's listed at 186 pounds, he probably tips the scales at a bit more than that, and he possesses a projectable frame that can hold more weight.

Rivals.com analyst Woody Wommack told VolQuest's Paul Fortenberry that Gray plans to focus exclusively on playing safety this year, which should help him hone his skills at the position.

But like many of UT's more exciting recruits in recent years—such as Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Jauan Jennings, Tyler Byrd and Jonathan Kongbo—Gray isn't just pigeonholed into one spot. His versatility is an asset to his game.

He's athletic enough to play cornerback, which he has done at the high school level. He also has the frame and strength to grow into a linebacker.

That's the type of versatility UT defensive coordinator Bob Shoop covets and the kind the coach has been able to exploit throughout his career leading defenses.

Gray can play sideline-to-sideline, or he can step up and be a force in the box. He has the chance to be a prototype safety at the next level.

Yes, the Vols are currently loaded at that position. But when you factor in the fact that Todd Kelly Jr. will be entering his final season in Knoxville by the time Gray steps foot on campus, playing time will be there for the taking on the back level.

Scout.com analyst Chad Simmons discussed Gray's lofty ceiling upon his commitment to the Vols:

He really can run and close on the football with the best of them. He is used on blitzes, and he is very effective there. Coverage is not a true strength of his, but he is solid there. He can improve his footwork and his recognition in coverage. When he makes a tackle, he tackles with pop. He knows how to tackle through the opponent. Overall, Gray is a playmaker on defense.

After favoring Florida State and USC throughout his recruitment, the Vols did some stellar work to get back in the mix and storm to the lead for Gray's services. Other teams won't stop recruiting him, but to get Gray in the fold this early is big.

Will Gray Equal Momentum?

Credit: 247Sports

Peer recruiting is pivotal these days, and the Vols have witnessed plenty of examples of that against them so far in this cycle, as Rodgers and former quarterback commitment Hunter Johnson will try to lure Volunteer State prospects away from the state to play with them at Clemson.

Gray could be a huge boost for the Vols in reversing those efforts to steer Tennessee kids away from UT.

He plays with a lot of highly ranked and heavily recruited players on Tennessee's radar, especially those around the Nashville area.

Guys like running back Ty Chandler, Oakland safety JaCoby Stevens, offensive tackle Obinna Eze and La Vergne receiver Princeton Fant run in the same circles as Gray. Fant and Gray play at the same high school and have been on several visits to UT together.

If Gray is a vocal recruiter and alpha dog for the Vols on the trail, he could get the attention of those guys and perhaps even Higgins and Smith, who are also among the best prospects in the state.

When you have so many national recruits within state borders like Tennessee does this year, it's tough to get a lot of early commitments, but Jones has positioned his Vols nicely with a lot of the in-state players.

It just has to yield signees. Second place never matters in recruiting.

When the recruiting efforts pay off like Gray's did Sunday, that gets other prospects listening. It's a nice time for Tennessee to be building momentum with the Orange Carpet Day recruiting event coming up next week and several other summer camps on the docket.

Maybe Gray can be present at those events, and that will be another orange-toned voice to urge others to follow in his footsteps.

Having an Under Armour All-American like Gray in the fold doesn't just lead to in-state success; it also sends shock waves around the nation.

Jones has too strong of a track record in recruiting throughout his time in Knoxville to think the Vols will be down that long in the rankings. Gray could be that catalyst to get the prospects off the fence—much like Jalen Hurd and Todd Kelly Jr. were a couple of years ago.

Last year, the Vols didn't target a lot of players within the Volunteer State, so there weren't any momentum-swinging prospects needed, but that's not the case in the '17 cycle.

The Vols desperately need to keep the elite players at home with so much talent cycling out if they want to start their own run of competing for championships every year.

Gray is the type of player UT needs to lure if it is going to play at a high level.

All quotes and information gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information gathered from 247Sports unless otherwise noted. All stats gathered at CFBStats.com 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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