Wednesday, February 04, 2009


UT National Signing Day 2009

The whirlwind that has been Tennessee football recruiting - for the most part - comes to an end today in the form of National Signing Day. I say "for the most part" because a few highly touted recruits, including RB David Oku and TE Orson Charles, will not sign with any school today and instead will wait to make their decision. UT is very much in play with both Oku and Charles, and it wouldn't surprise me if both end up signing with Tennessee in the end.

Much has been made about Lane Kiffin and his staff's salaries, which are only slightly higher than the previous, less famous staff. Most of the people making a big deal out of the salaries are people who hate Tennessee (like alumnus-turned-Bama-whore Paul Finebaum) or people who don't appear to understand that UT Athletics does not receive any state taxpayer funding (such as Governor Phil Bredesen). (My recommendation to Athletic Director Mike Hamilton - if Bredesen comes to any UT games from now on, make sure that he understands where your revenue stream comes from; make sure he pays his own way.)

The sad truth is that Coach Phil Fulmer had a lousy recruiting year in 2008, and the cupboard is nearly bare for Kiffin and staff. A situation where you have two bad recruiting classes back-to-back is hard to overcome for any program (think Nebraska), and Kiffin and his staff have done everything they can to try to ward that off with tireless recruiting. Have they done enough in the past month to persuade enough young men to cast their lot with the Vols for the next few 4 years? We'll know today.

8:02 A.M. - First, let's acknowledge the few players who signed with UT and enrolled in classes between fall and spring term.

Nigel Mitchell-Thornton - MLB - 6'2", 228 lbs. - Stone Mountain, Georgia
Ranked as #43 Inside Linebacker by Rivals

Toney Williams - RB - 6'1", 227 lbs. - Alpharetta, Georgia
Ranked as #53 Running Back by Rivals

Montori Hughes - DT - 6'5", 275 lbs. - Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Hughes was part of the 2008 signing class, having spent the past year successfully getting his academics in order.

Rae Sykes - DE - 6'4", 240 lbs. - Alcoa, Tennessee
Sykes was part of the 2007 signing class. He was ranked as the #14 DE in the nation by Rivals that year.

This group will, in my opinion, make its mark on UT football. Easily one of the my favorite players based on film review, Toney Williams is a beast at RB. Admittedly, I am preferential to big running backs, but Williams doesn't shy away from contact and has good enough speed to where he routinely ran away from defensive backs playing in one of the most competitive divisions in Southern high school football. Given the lack of depth at DT, Hughes could compete to be in the two-deep right away, which is remarkable given that he was not highly regarded out of high school. There is more depth at DE, but Sykes was a special athlete while at Alcoa High School, and I expect both to play relatively early in their careers.

8:31 A.M. - Several players have signed early this morning.

JerQuari Schofield - OT - 6'6", 298 lbs. - Aiken, South Carolina
Ranked as the #20 Offensive Tackle in the nation by Rivals.

Kevin Revis - C - 6'4", 265 lbs. - Rhea County, Tennessee
Ranked as the #11 Center in the nation by Rivals.

One place that Phil Fulmer inexplicably had been neglecting for the past few years was in offensive line recruiting. One look at the 2010 potential starting lineup along the offensive line will leave the most orange-blooded fan pessimistic. With most of the top offensive line prospects likely heading elsewhere, Schofield looks to be the best prospect for help in years to come. Admittedly, offensive line is a difficult position to predict, but I have questioned the offer to Kevin Revis from the time when it was extended by Fulmer's staff. I know that some see Revis as the next Scott Wells - another former wrestler who stayed in-state to play football - but I just don't see it. I hope I'm wrong, of course.

8:44 A.M. - Two more are in.

Zach Rogers - WR - 6'2", 170 lbs. - Nashville, Tennessee
Ranked as the #54 WR in the nation by Rivals.
Chose UT over Alabama, Texas Tech, Auburn, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

Arthur Jeffery - DT - 6'4", 285 lbs. - Sarasota, Florida
Ranked as the #55 DT in the nation by Rivals.

Most will know Zach Rogers as current UT WR Austin Rogers' little brother, but that may be selling Zach short. Zach became a target for colleges across the country after a stellar performance at the Atlanta Nike Combine back last March. He looks to have better hands and speed than Austin. Jeffery is sort of a gamble - by both Jeffery and UT. Jeffery suffered an injured knee that kept him out of his senior year, so most schools cooled on him. However, when Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin came to Knoxville, Jeffery received an immediate offer from Tennessee and accepted almost immediately. Jeffery comes in at a position of need, so he will likely contribute during his career. The only question is when does that occur - sooner or later?

8:58 A.M. - One more player is in and one is out. Long-time UT verbal commitment Aubrey Phillips (a massive 6'6", 310 lbs. OT from Olive Branch, Mississippi) has shown the wandering eye over the past few weeks, and apparently his looking around has been for a reason. Word has it that Phillips has signed with Florida State. While it hurts UT that Phillips reneged on his verbal commitment, it could have been worse - Auburn thought he would be signing with them, and we actually have to play the War Eagle Tigers.

Nyshier Oliver - CB - 5'10", 180 lbs. - Jersey City, New Jersey
Ranked as the #39 Athlete in the nation by Rivals.
Chose UT over Notre Dame, Boston College, Wake Forest, and Penn State.

Oliver's recruitment has been wild. First, he committed to Fulmer last summer. Then, only slightly into what would be a disastrous season for Tennessee, Oliver decommitted and told Notre Dame that he was solid to the Fighting Irish. However, once Coach Lane Kiffin had assembled his staff, it was Oliver that called Knoxville and asked if he could come back into the Big Orange fold. I have been told by people who have watched Oliver play that he is a special talent for the secondary, which has been a strength for this team recently under Chavis and may be even better under Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin.

9:17 A.M. - There are rumblings that Tennessee may lose out on both of its highly recruited WRs - Marlon Brown and Je'Ron Stokes. Brown has always been tough to read, but Stokes was solid until Fulmer's firing. Stokes, in my opinion, may choose Michigan over UT, which would be a huge mistake. Coach Rich Rodriguez has no record of putting WRs into the NFL (and Stokes has that sort of talent), but he does have a record of lying (ask West Virginia). If UT were to lose both Brown and Stokes, there will be some serious post-NSD discussion that this team does not have the playmakers to compete with Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and LSU.

9:23 A.M. - Take another game-breaking WR off of the board. Ashlon Jefffery, who was down to Southern Cal, UT, and South Carolina, has committed to the Gamecocks. Of course, this hurts more since he stayed not only in conference but in our division of the conference.

9:48 A.M. - The next great Tennessee LB is in the house - with a familiar first name from the same geographic area.

Jerod Askew - MLB - 6'0", 230 lbs. - Chesapeake, Virginia
Ranked as the #6 Inside Linebacker in the nation by Rivals.
Ranked as the #71 overall player in the nation by Rivals.
Chose UT over Alabama, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Clemson, and Michigan.

Easily one of my favorite recruits, Askew has a 4.7 GPA and has exhibited leadership qualities amongst his high school team and community. Tennessee is getting a great person, student, and player with this signing. Askew patterns his game after another local Tidewater product, former UT MLB and current NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Jerod Mayo. With UT having serious depth issues at LB after the graduation of Ellix Wilson, Nevin McKenzie, and Adam Myers-White, Askew should see the field early and often as soon as he arrives on campus.

9:52 A.M. - Jonathan Evans, a 6'5", 205 lbs. Outside Linebacker from Prichard, Alabama, has signed with Auburn. Evans was between Auburn, Clemson, and Tennessee. Losing Evans, to be honest, doesn't hurt UT in the least. They now will likely extend a long-overdue offer to Stone Mountain, Georgia, LB Robert Nelson. Nelson wants to be a Vol, and his game film reminded me at times of Al Wilson in terms of his penetration and tackles for losses. He needs to work on his coverage skills and ability to get off of blocks, but Nelson looked to me to be the better prospect.

In a strange twist, Janzen Jackson, the #2 CB in the country who is down to LSU and Tennessee, has delayed his recruiting until tomorrow so that his mother, who is out of town, can attend. Jackson will more than likely pick LSU, but the longer this gets strung out, the better it is for UT.

10:04 A.M. - Lots of UT targets set to commit in the next hour. Some who were set to sign earlier this morning have been pushed back due to weather concerns throughout the Midwest.

10:25 A.M. - Here comes another quality athlete for Tennessee.

James Green - WR - 6'2", 202 lbs. - Tallahassee, Florida
Ranked as the #17 WR in the nation by Rivals.
Ranked as the #123 overall player in the nation by Rivals.
Chose UT over Auburn, South Carolina, and Ohio State.

Green fits the bill for what Coach Kiffin wants in his wide receivers - big, tall, and with good hands. Ideally, Kiffin would have Green and Marlon Brown split out wide with Marsalis Teague or Nu'Keese Richardson in the slot. Green looks quite a bit faster on film than his 40 time dictates (4.67), and some time in UT's weight room with new coach Mark Smith could make Green a beast to defend for the smaller CBs in the SEC.

10:37 A.M. - Sam Montgomery, the #6 DE in America, just announced his choice on ESPNU, and it's not good news for Tennessee. Montgomery, who I thought was the best defensive line prospect that Tennessee was recruiting, chose LSU over the Vols and North Carolina.

10:44 A.M. - And the hits just keep on coming... Pearlie Graves, the #32 DT in the nation according to Rivals, just chose Texas Tech over the Vols and Michigan. Not to be too negative, but Tennessee should never be losing defensive recruits to Texas Tech and their pirate-loving coach.

10:50 A.M. - Darren Myles, Jr. is up next. He is between UT and Alabama. Things have not gone well for UT thus far today, and if Myles chooses Alabama, it will be hard to consider today anything but a negative day for UT.

10:52 A.M. - Darren Myles, Jr. just get a big yell from Coach Orgeron on The Hill. Live on ESPNU, he just chose The University of Tennessee.

Darren Myles, Jr. - S - 6'1", 175 lbs. - Atlanta, Georgia
Ranked #9 Safety in the nation by Rivals.
Ranked #133 overall player in the nation by Rivals.
Chose Tennessee over Alabama and LSU.

Myles is a special player, and he could be the person with the unenviable task of having to replace Eric Berry in the UT secondary. Whereas Berry's father was a former player, Myles' father is a coach. Myles moves fluidly around the field, always seems to be in the right place at the right time, and hits players with conviction. He doesn't hit as hard as Alabama signee Rod Woodson, but Myles is in position more often than Woodson and seems to have better instincts. This was a great Signing Day surprise for Tennessee.

11:26 A.M. - Not much going on with UT at the moment, but our rivals just got stung a bit. Frankie Telfort, the #8 LB in the country, just chose Southern Cal over Florida, which is good news for Vol fans. Telfort was once a Vol target, and he is one of the fastest LBs in the country. For him to leave the state of Florida for USC certainly won't make many Gators happy. Alabama also suffered a loss in WR Patrick Patterson, the #4 WR in the country according to Rivals. Patterson chose Ole Miss over the Crimson Tide. Also, the #1 prep schooler in the nation, OT Bobby Massie, crawfished at the last moment and went to Ole Miss over Alabama.

11:41 A.M. - In another blow to Florida, Tennessee has just stolen another of their commitments - this time from a Volunteer State native. Consider this step one in Lane Kiffin's effort to erect a fence around the state.

Marsalis Teague - Athlete - 5'10", 170 lbs. - Paris, Tennessee
Ranked #28 athlete in the nation by Rivals.
Chose UT over Florida, Alabama, and Ole Miss.

Teague projects as a WR at UT, probably in the slot. He is incredibly elusive and qualifies as one of those "playmakers" that coaches always talk about. His recruitment was interesting, to say the least. Teague was part of the "Paris Pair" with Dominique Allen, one of the top fullbacks in the nation. Allen committed to Tennessee while Fulmer was still coach, while Teague looked destined to head to Florida. After Fulmer was fired, Allen decommitted and became one of LSU's biggest recruiters. Meanwhile, Kiffin turned his eyes toward Teague and never let up. Florida and Alabama were both confident as of last night that Teague was there's to lose, but Teague proved them all wrong today, choosing to bring his speed and talent to The Hill.

11:53 A.M. - Another Volunteer State product has joined the Big Orange...

Eric Gordon - CB - 5'9", 187 lbs. - Nashville, Tennessee
Ranked #16 CB in the nation by Rivals.
Ranked #159 overall player in the nation by Rivals.
Chose UT over Alabama, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech.

Gordon was the first player to commit to Coach Lane Kiffin after he was announced as UT's new head coach. Gordon is an impressive athlete who could play a number of positions, as shown by his designation as the offensive MVP of Hillsboro's TSSAA State Championship victory over Maryville. Gordon's high school coach once played with Marshall Faulk, and it's that player to which his coach most favorably compares Gordon. Gordon on film reminds me greatly of current UT player Dennis Rogan.

12:06 P.M. - The Vols keep another Tennessee player in-state - and away from Alabama...

Greg King - MLB - 6'3", 200 lbs. - Memphis, Tennessee
Ranked #31 Inside LB in the nation by Rivals.
Chose UT over Alabama and Auburn.

The signing of Greg King is an obvious tribute to the work of UT's new staff. King was not a target by the prior staff, but that changed once the regime change was completed. King is a solid linebacker in the mold of Marvin Mitchell, and given Tennessee's losses to graduation at the position, King will be given the opportunity to earn a spot in the two-deep early. Consider this fencepost #3 in Coach Kiffin's effort to erect the border around Tennessee.

12:24 P.M. - He giveth, and He taketh away. First, RB Eddie Lacy, who is ranked as the #13 RB in the nation, just picked Alabama over Tennessee. That's not a big loss as long as Tennessee is able to convince either of the late signees (David Oku or Bryce Brown) to live in Knoxville for the next 4 years. But the bigger news - one that has the Big Orange Nation jumping - is that 2010 prospect Jacques Smith, a DE that reminds everyone of Leonard Little, has verbally committed to Tennessee. Smith, who plays for Ooltewah and was reported to have Georgia out in front as recently as two weeks ago, is thought to be the top prospect in the state of Tennessee for 2010 and probably one of the top prospects in the entire country. Everyone who has seen Smith believes that he is bound for the NFL someday, and word is that he is an incredibly humble fellow. It's great to get such an incredible start to National Signing Day 2010.

12:41 P.M. - Another defensive player has faxed in his LOI to Coach Kiffin.

Mike Edwards - CB - 5'10", 170 lbs. - Cleveland, Ohio
Ranked #48 CB in the nation by Rivals.
Chose UT over Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, and Cincinnati.

I've spoken to a few guys who follow Ohio high school football, and they all say to a man that Edwards has the best cover skills of any cornerback in the state of Ohio. I'm not sure why his Rivals ranking is so low, because his film shows that he has great cover skills and is not afraid of contact. I would consider Edwards to be the sleeper prospect of this class.

12:58 P.M. - Yet another defensive player makes it to Knoxville, but this one came with a bit of a twist - he was given a scholarship offer only a few minutes ago.

Robert Nelson - LB - 6'0", 205 lbs. - Stone Mountain, Georgia
Ranked #35 LB in the nation by Rivals.
Chose UT over South Carolina, Auburn, and West Virginia.

Nelson's recruiting was interesting to say the least. Nelson had 176 tackles as a junior, but he somehow just fell off the recruiting map. As far as UT is concerned, Nelson surfaced right before National Signing Day, visiting Knoxville on an official visit last weekend. Nelson came away saying that he was ready to commit to Tennessee, but the staff wanted to make sure that their numbers balanced out. (Basically, they wanted to make sure that prospects like Tana Patrick and Jonathan Evans were going to stick by their previous commitments.) Everything went to script today, and UT called Nelson this afternoon and offered him a scholarship. I'm happy with that, because Nelson's game film shows that he attacks the line of scrimmage with Al Wilson-like abandon. He needs to work on his coverage skills, but we have coaches who can help him with that. Nelson, along with Edwards, are sleepers in this year's class.

1:18 P.M. - And the roller coaster ride continues. Two notable prospects have chose schools other than UT, one being DT D.D. Jones and the other OT Morgan Moses. Neither was expected to pick UT, although there was hope that both would see UT's current depth chart as an opportunity for early playing time. Jones signed with Arkansas. Moses, who was thought to be a silent commitment to Fulmer before the firing, is a mammoth OT, weighing in at 347 lbs. and standing 6'7". Moses signed with Virginia, and it is no coincidence that his main recruiter while at Tennessee, Latrell Scott, was the man who turned Moses on to the Cavs after Scott was hired there.

1:29 P.M. - Another player rejoins the Vols after a stint at Hargrave Miliary Academy...

Marlon Walls - DE - 6'4" 265 lbs. - Olive Branch, Mississippi
Ranked #5 prep school overall player by Rivals.

One of the top players of the 2008 signing class, Walls spent the past year at Hargrave to get his academics in order before coming to Knoxville. At the time, he was a 4-star LB. Two inches and 40 pounds later, Walls projects as one of the top DE prospects in the nation. With newcomers Walls and Sykes to go with returning players Chris Walker, Ben Martin, Wes Brown, and Gerald Williams, the defensive end position looks to be pretty solid for Tennessee for the next couple of years.

1:46 P.M. - There is one subject matter in particular where ESPN really bites - college football recruiting. Rivals just murders them on information. About 45 minutes ago, ESPN reported that Nu'Keese Richardson had decided to stick with his commitment to Florida. I didn't report it here because I know that ESPN doesn't know what the heck they're talking about.

And, as of a couple of minutes ago...

Nu'Keese Richardson - WR - 5'8", 151 lbs. - Pahokee, Florida
Ranked #9 WR in the nation by Rivals.
Ranked #68 overall player in nation by Rivals.
Chose UT over Florida.

Welcome to the Big Orange, Nuke! Many UT fans wondered aloud when Coach Kiffin told longtime commitment Damien Thigpen (who signed with UCLA today) that he should look around. The reason behind this change of thought could have possibly been Richardson. Richardson is rated at the #2 player after making the catch by Rivals - he can flat out fly, and he has the hip swivel that so many South Florida recruits are known for (think Noel Devine, the explosive RB for West Virginia). Richardson visited UT in a move that surprised many on the weekend before National Signing Day, and it appears that Coach Kiffin has plucked another one from Urban Meyer. I doubt that it will be the last.

2:55 P.M. - Kendall Kelly, the #26 WR in the nation, just picked Alabama over Tennessee, LSU, and Clemson. This in itself is not a huge loss, but combined with a decommitment by Je'Ron Stokes and the loss of Marlon Brown (all within the next hour) would not be good for the Big Orange.

3:09 P.M. - The dumbest guy of the day (and there's always one every year) is hands-down Dre Kirkpatrick. It's been the worst kept secret in all mankind that Kirkpatrick was committed to his homestate Alabama Crimson Tide for about half a year. Today, he not only did a hat dance, pretending like Texas had a chance, but also pulled a bunch of bags and boxes out to prolong the fake drama. He then mouthed off about how great he was. I just hope I'm in attendance when Toney Williams breaks around the end, runs over the scarecrow Kirkpatrick, and keeps on going.

3:13 P.M. - The downward slide continues for UT. Jonathan Hollins, who was listed as a UT commit, has signed with Arizona. Hollins was a highly regarded DT who is a JUCO signee. Word has been that Hollins would not be signing with Tennessee due to the SEC's academic standards for JUCO transfers, which exceed those of such conferences as the PAC-10. In any case, that leaves UT with two DT signees - an area that must be addressed next year.

3:34 P.M. - Right now, we're waiting on a few announcements that should be coming rather soon. Chief amongst those is Marlon Brown, the ultra-talented WR out of Memphis that is the concensus #1 player in Tennessee. One report (it was the KNS, so take it with a grain of salt) this morning had Brown going to Ohio State. Most analysts I know have Brown going to Georgia. Several of us haven't given up on the Big Orange, where Marlon likely steps on campus as a starter his freshman year. Brown is set to announce at 3:45 this afternoon.

We're also waiting on Je'Ron Stokes, another WR that has been a longtime commitment to UT before waivering lately. Latest information has Stokes signing with Michigan, where he will work on his blocking since Rodriguez doesn't throw the ball with regularity. Stokes seems like a great kid, and I'm afraid that he's about to make a huge mistake.

Finally, there are rumors regarding Janzen Jackson, a LSU verbal commitment who cancelled his signing ceremony earlier today due to his mother not being able to attend. Word began to leak out a few hours later that there may be more to the situation than that. Then some LSU recruiting analysts started to prepare their fan base for the possibility that Jackson might commit later today and that it might not be LSU. Stay tuned on that one.

3:46 P.M. - Let the meltdown begin. Marlon Brown has spurned Coach Lane Kiffin and has picked Georgia.

3:49 P.M. - I'm hearing that Janzen Jackson is waiting until tomorrow to sign, but that Tennessee does have a chance there. David Oku sounds like he might take several weeks until he signs. Je'Ron Stokes has officially decided to end his chances at an NFL career and signed with Michigan. Orson Charles is an incredible TE prospect, but he still has a visit to Southern Cal this upcoming weekend before he decides where to attend school. Bryce Brown has always been a longshot, but he'll announce his choice sometime next week.

So where does that leave Tennessee? Well, this class wasn't horrible like one would expect with a coaching change. It ranks somewhere between 20-25, depending on which recruiting service you cite. However, what greatly concerns me is what hasn't been addressed in the last two classes. It's no secret that Fulmer left the cupboard bare for Kiffin. He hasn't landed a highly regarded QB prospect since 2005 (Jonathan Crompton), and he only signed 2-3 quality offensive linemen over his final 3 classes at UT. Now this class has no QB, one realistic offensive lineman, and two defensive tackles.

The priorities for 2010 have to be 2 QBs, 1 RB (if Oku or Brown doesn't sign in the next couple of weeks), any gamebreaking WR, 4-5 Offensive Linemen, 2-3 DTs, 1 stellar DB (assuming that we don't pull Jackson from LSU tomorrow), and a kicker. That's 12-14 players. Luckily, with two classes of well-below-average size, we have plenty of room to offer lots of players. (The NCAA has a limit of 25 signees per signing class. This creates problems for teams like Ole Miss that signed 37 players today and now must place some at junior colleges, prep schools, or give some a "greyshirt" where they have to pay their own way for one year. Because Ole Miss signed 31 players in 2008, there's no opportunity to backcount any players to the Class of 2008.) UT will be able to backcount as many as 7 players to the Class of 2009, so the chance for big class - especially with these recruiters - is likely for 2010. And it didn't hurt to snag the commitment of the #1 player in Tennessee for 2010 earlier today in Jacques Smith, either.

All in all, this class is short on numbers and pretty high on quality. In other conferences, it would be a success. The problem is that UT is ranked #23 with Rivals but is the #10 team in the SEC. When you're only beating Kentucky and Vanderbilt in football recruiting, you have cause to worry. Is it damning? No, but it adds pressure to next year's class. Under the previous staff, I would be worried. This staff eats, drinks, and sleeps recruiting. (Well, Coach "O" drinks so much Red Bull that he doesn't sleep - a man after my own heart...) I think they'll be up to the challenge. Plus, that ranking (tenth) takes into accounts all recruits, so classes with bigger numbers (which is every SEC team) have the advantage. Tennessee ranks 5th in the SEC and 10th in the nation in average "star rating" - which shows pretty good quality in this class.

As for the 2009 season, this class doesn't impact much on the field. I think at least one of the LBs will see considerable playing time (probably Jerod Askew), that Darren Myles could see playing time if Demetrice Morley can't get things together in the classroom, that both Rae Sykes and Marlon Walls see time in the DE rotation, and that the ball will be in the hands of both Marsalis Teague and "Nuke" Richardson in some fashion (either on special teams or by playing in the slot). That would be about it. However, there isn't cause for panic in Knoxville. I see UT going 8-4 this upcoming year, 4-4 in the SEC, with wins against Western Kentucky, UCLA, Ohio, Auburn, South Carolina, Memphis, Vanderbilt, and at Kentucky, and losses at Florida, against Georgia, at Alabama, and at Ole Miss. Remember, I was pretty close last year (picking 6-6 after NSD, when UT finished 5-7) and predicting the firing of the coaching staff.

Well, that's all folks. Hope you enjoyed it.


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