This Tennessee football recruiting preview is provided by Brad Shepard of SB Nation's excellent Tennessee site, Rocky Top Talk. For all your coverage of Volunteers recruiting, head to Rocky Top Talk. Looking for National Signing Day coverage of other teams or recruits? Head to SB Nation College Football Recruiting.
Recruiting is forged in relationships, and those sometimes take years to cultivate and grow. For Derek Dooley and his University of Tennessee staff, they've finally began to catch up after two full years in Knoxville.
Though the fruits of those relationships are evident now, you'd never have known it during summer 2011. The Vols were off to about as quiet a recruiting start in recent memory, getting shut out on commitments until June 14. (Running back Imani Cross actually committed earlier but has since been asked to look around and is no longer a UT commitment.)
With National Signing Day upon us, that slow start is long forgotten as the Vols are nearly full with numerous targets of need remaining on the board. Rather than worrying about filling up the allotted 25 scholarships, UT is now trying to close with the best players on board - and the unpopular practice of culling recruits is probably going to have to happen.
Since Tennessee asked 2010 cornerback commit Tino Thomas to grayshirt and benefited from Notre Dame transfer offensive lineman Alex Bullard walking on and starting every game last season, those two likely will take up two scholarships toward this year's 25. UT currently has 20 verbal pledges with many irons left in the fire.
The Vols got off to a late start with commitments this year, but when they came, they rolled in in a hurry. In the 13 days between July 18-30 coinciding with one of UT's big summer camps, Dooley accepted 10 commitments, filling multiple needs along the way.
First came in-state wide receiver Drae Bowles and Georgia athlete Justin King (who will play linebacker) on July 18. Next, powerful running back Alden Hill accepted a camp offer. Then came an evaluation gem in quarterback Nathan Peterman, who showed out in Knoxville, earned an offer and went from virtual unknown to leading his high school team to a Florida state championship appearance in a season that has him widely considered the best quarterback prospect in the Sunshine State.
Linebacker Otha Peters and defensive end LaTroy Lewis were next, followed by local athlete Cody Blanc. The Vols weren't done in July as they added four-star JUCO defensive tackle Damien Jacobs and local kicker George Bullock at the end of that month.
With the class's core in place, the Vols welcomed its biggest commitment of the class on Aug. 5 when star middle linebacker Dalton Santos stunned everybody by picking the Vols over Texas A&M and Alabama. After the Santos commitment, UT began reeling off some big names that currently have the Vols high in the Rivals.com rankings. Four-star talents CB Kenneth Crawley, S LaDarrell McNeil, WR Jason Croom, DE Trent Taylor (a decommitment from Miami following the Shapiro fiasco) and DT Danny O'Brien came throughout the season.
Despite a disappointing, injury-plagued 5-7 year, the Vols still managed to fill some holes on the recruiting trail. Needing to address an obvious dearth at speed all over the field, UT has received commitments from several burners. Athens (Ga.) running back Quenshaun Watson and cornerback Daniel Gray became Vols within two weeks of one another in November. Then, one of the big prizes of UT's class Alton "Pig" Howard and JUCO DB Otis Jacobs became Vols in December, sandwiched around a pledge from tight end Justin Meredith, who flipped from North Carolina after their coaching turnover.
But unfortunately for Vols fans, Santos, Jacobs, Jacobs (the other Jacobs), Henderson, Redding and Crawley all reneged on their commitment to Tennessee. This is still a good class. It's just not quite as good as it could have been.
So here, in a nutshell, is everything you need to look for from a Vols perspective come NSD (No Sense Day).
- First and foremost, you need to know that Rocky Top Talk is going to have a blow-by-blow account of the day's proceedings. We'll do the best we can to have wall-to-wall coverage, you know, amid our real jobs and daily obligations in the real world. There will be a column heading into the day, an open thread, breaking news reports, commitment capsules and a recap. And that's probably just the beginning of what we'll have for you on RTT.
- Next -- and most importantly -- here is a rundown of the players we'll be watching with fingers crossed and bated breath on Wednesday. [Times are subject to change...] Remember, my predictions mean nothing. I'm notoriously bad at predicting how these things will go ... which is why I love Signing Day so much.
- Brookville (Va.) DT Korren Kirven gets the day started early with his announcement at 8 a.m. EST. Kirven is one of the Vols' most important targets, and it is thought to be a Virginia Tech/Tennessee battle with Alabama on the outside looking in. This one is very, very close, but if I had to pick, I'd choose ... PREDICTION: Virginia Tech. Close family members are Hokies fans, and there's some pressure to stay home. Still would not be surprised -- and would be VERY elated -- if he decided Knoxville wasn't that far away.
- South Miami (Fla.) CB Amos "AJ" Leggett gives his verbal pledge next at 9 a.m. EST. Leggett had an amazing senior season playing for his fourth high school in as many seasons. The big question here is A) Can the Vols get him into school? And B) Can they convince him that they can? Florida state and Miami could not. If not, he'll go to Marshall where he's currently committed. But the lure to play Southeastern Conference football is big. PREDICTION: Tennessee. If the Vols want him and believe they can get him in, there's no doubt he'll choose the Vols over the Herd. If he doesn't commit, then -- no sour grapes intended -- you'll know the risk was too great.
- Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College WR Cordarrelle Patterson commits at 10:30 a.m. This is one of the biggest toss-ups of the recruiting season. Literally five SEC teams think they have a shot. Tennessee and Georgia have been the favorites for a while. He loved his visits to Ole Miss and LSU late. Auburn has the Trooper Taylor factor on its side. There is literally no telling where he goes. PREDICTION: Tennessee. I think he pulls a shocker and goes with the Vols over the Dawgs and Rebels. This is with my heart, and since I have no idea, I'm saying Vols.
- Gaffney (S.C.) wide receiver Quinshad Davis will choose between the Vols, Wake Forest and North Carolina at his high school at noon EST. Of all the players UT is watching on National Signing Day, Davis is probably the best bet to come to Knoxville -- which means absolutely nothing in recruiting. The Vols appear to be the odds-on favorite to land the superb wide out, but it's not a guarantee. He has a long-standing relationship with Wake Forest, and Davis was the valedictorian of his high school, so it may be tough to turn down the education he can get at Wake. Also, there have been rumors that North Carolina has turned up the heat late. UT did get the last visit, so the Vols will be fresh on his mind. PREDICTION: Tennessee. SEC football wins the day.
- Timber Creek (N.J.) linebacker Quanzell Lambert is the big question mark of the day. Will he sign with Rutgers, the school to whom he has been committed for a long time? After Greg Schiano left to go coach for the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Vols are trying to get in on Lambert. He has already taken all five official visits [none to UT] but Vols new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri has a relationship with Lambert and recruited him to Alabama. If Lambert doesn't sign, takes his recruitment past NSD and visits the Vols unofficially, things may get interesting. He won't pick UT tomorrow, but we will be watching to see if he signs with Rutgers. If not, the Vols may have a spot open for him after NSD with the loss of Santos. PREDICTION: Whether tomorrow or down the road, I think he sticks with Rutgers in the end.
- Say a little prayer for little drama from our commitments. Right now, it looks like Dalton Santos' defection from the real UT to Texas **may be** the last of our backpedaling from a current commitment standpoint, but there is the potential for a little hang-wringing. Two of UT's top commitments are at least flirting with other schools. Louisiana linebacker Otha Peters took a visit to Arkansas last weekend and had a great time. Though he told Volquest.com there is "no way" he will sign with anybody else Wednesday, he's playing the game with some of the other sites, including all Arkansas's sites and a couple of UT's. Also, top commitment LaDarrell McNeil remains committed to UT, but it wouldn't be terribly surprising for him to pull a last-minute switch to Oklahoma State. Still, the Vols seem to have momentum there. The other potential defection is running back Davante Bourque, but it looks like he will assuredly sign with the Vols now after a brief Miami courtship.
- Major recruiting spin -- from coaches and fans. Don't expect for Derek Dooley to stand up there at the podium tomorrow afternoon and talk about the big fish who signed with somebody else. No matter where they're ranked, coaches will act like they've signed the best class ever. Also, fans like myself will be painfully optimistic and make myriad excuses when Player X signs with School Y over UT. Just get ready. It's gonna happen. You need to educate yourself to weigh through the bull dung. I'll try to toss my fandom aside and shoot you as straight as possible throughout the day.
- Unusually large disparities in the Vols' final recruiting rankings. It's going to happen, folks, and it's not every year that you see it. Many years, the four major services [Rivals, Scout, ESPN and new giant 247 Sports] will all have a school's final rankings pretty close. That's not the case with UT this year. The Vols are much higher in Rivals rankings entering National Signing Day than the other three. It will not be surprising to get major lip service from analysts on a couple sites while hearing about how disappointing our class is on the others.
It's going to be a wild ride to National Signing Day, and Rocky Top Talk will have all the news leading up to it.