NCAA Football News

Ohio State Football Recruiting: Meet the Buckeyes' 2016 Class

Head coach Urban Meyer and Ohio State found themselves in a familiar spot on national signing day, pacing the Big Ten with the conference's top recruiting class for the fifth consecutive year.

The Buckeyes' 25-member class ranked fourth nationally behind Alabama, Florida State and LSU and filled a number of big needs on the roster—primarily at wide receiver and in the secondary. 

With the number of holes to fill in Ohio State's two-deep roster, Meyer envisions plenty of first-year players making an immediate impact.

"I hope 18 of them play," Meyer said of his 2016 recruiting class, according to Ari Wasserman of the Plain Dealer.

Here's a look at the newest Buckeyes.


Cherry-Picking the State of Ohio

Ohio State didn't dominate the in-state recruiting scene like it usually does, but it did a good job of cherry-picking some of the top players from its own backyard.

Since Meyer took over the Buckeyes in 2012, he's managed to sign 21 of the state's top 40 players, highlighted by nabbing the No. 1 overall Ohio prospect each year since 2012. This year, Ohio State only signed four of the state's top 10 players—4-stars Jonathon Cooper (defensive end), Demario McCall (all-purpose back), Jake Hausmann (tight end) and Luke Farrell (tight end)—and failed to nab No. 1-ranked Tommy Kraemer (offensive tackle).

In total, nine of the Buckeyes' 25 new players hail from the state of Ohio, so Meyer and his coaching staff did a good job of pulling from the local talent pool. 

 

Loading Up on Playmakers

Ohio State lost a lot of firepower to the NFL with the departures of running back Ezekiel Elliott and wide receivers Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall and Braxton Miller. One of Meyer's top recruiting priorities was to load up on offensive playmakers ahead of 2016, and that's exactly what he did with this class.

It starts at wide receiver, where the Buckeyes signed two of the country's most dangerous red-zone threats in Austin Mack and Binjimen Victor. Mack, the nation's 10th-ranked wide receiver, is a 6'2" blazer who can go up and make tough catches. Victor, rated the 12th-best receiver, is nearly 6'4" and a polished route-runner who uses his size to his advantage. 

McCall, who played running back in high school, is projecting to H-back at the collegiate level, and he's the biggest home run hitter in the class. He'll have a running mate in 4-star Antonio Williams, the seventh-best running back in the country.

Behind center, though, Ohio State is excited about 4-star quarterback Dwayne Haskins. The Buckeyes were able to wrangle Haskins away from the home-state Maryland Terrapins, and Meyer thinks he has a special talent in the fold, as he told Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman on The Audible podcast: 

Originally, I thought Dwayne would be a redshirt candidate. When I first started recruiting him two years ago, he was very skinny. Then about three weeks ago, I saw him work out. I’ve been blessed to be around some incredible quarterbacks. But he’s the best that I’ve seen at his age since I’ve been coaching.

 

Another Bosa Headlines the Defensive Haul

Superstar defensive end Joey Bosa anchored Ohio State's defense over the last two seasons, and while his departure will leave a big void in the defensive line, his younger brother Nick is on his way to Columbus and headlines a huge influx of defensive talent.

Nick Bosa, Ohio State's lone 5-star prospect, is the top-ranked strong-side defensive end and the No. 8 overall recruit nationally. He tore his ACL during his senior season, but he's ahead of schedule in his recovery and has a good chance of being healthy before fall camp starts.

He's the headliner for a special group of defenders.

The Buckeyes also got a big boost to their pass rush with the addition of Cooper, the nation's third-best weak-side defensive end. The linebacker corps was bolstered by 4-stars Tuf Borland, who enrolled early to take part in spring camp, and Keandre Jones, who Meyer singled out on signing day, per the Ozone's Patrick Murphy:

In the secondary, the Buckeyes loaded up on cornerbacks with the additions of 4-stars Jordan Fuller and Wayne Davis and 3-stars Rodjay Burns and Kareem Felder.

 

Instant-Impact Potential

When Meyer came to Ohio State, he talked about a philosophy that he and his staff didn't redshirt their freshmen. That wasn't the case last year, however, when only a handful of Ohio State's 25 freshmen saw the field during the 2015 campaign.

But with the mass departure of talent—the Buckeyes are replacing 16 starters and a number of key reserves—there will be a lot of opportunities for young players to crack the two-deep rotation.

Meyer talked about that potential at his signing day press conference, saying he has aspirations that 18 of his new players will see the field this fall. So which Buckeyes are primed for early playing time?

Both Bosa and Cooper are talented enough to factor into Ohio State's defensive line rotation. Meyer is very high on Jones at linebacker, and he and Fuller could get their feet wet on special teams.

Offensively, there's a huge opportunity for wideouts Mack, Victor and McCall, thanks to the attrition on the perimeter. And Haskins, the quarterback Meyer has fallen in love with, will compete for the No. 2 spot with Stephen Collier and Joe Burrow this fall.

Unlike last year, it won't take long for Buckeyes fans to see the new freshmen in action.

 

All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports.

David Regimbal is the lead Ohio State football writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412.

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National Signing Day 2016: List of Schools 5-Star Recruits Committed

National signing day 2016 was the typical frenzy of activity, with eager college football fans, programs and commentators across the nation awaiting the commitment decisions of the top high school football players.

The best of the best, the blue-chip prospects, receive the most attention from various programs and have incredibly tough decisions to make. Only so many prep players earn the coveted 5-star rating, and only so many programs have the opportunity to land one of these talents.

Putting together a complete recruiting class is important, but landing that one potentially transcendent player can boost a program's profile for years to come.

Here's the full list of 5-star recruits and where they will play college ball. Rankings are based on 247Sports' composite ratings



Michigan Lands Consensus No. 1 Rashan Gary

In his first year as Michigan coach, Jim Harbaugh transformed the Wolverines defense into one of the most feared groups in the nation. A string of three straight shutouts early in the 2015 season drew the program plenty of buzz.

The famously intense coach is no slouch when it comes to molding young players in a hurry, and he now has the opportunity to develop the top overall recruit in the nation in Rashan Gary. 

Gary donned the maize and blue cap live on ESPN2 on Wednesday, confirming what many recruiting analysts had long expected. Bleacher Report's Tyler Donohue provided some insight as to why the New Jersey kid chose to play football in Ann Arbor: 

"Former Paramus Catholic head coach Chris Partridge is now a member of the Wolverines staff and played a pivotal role in this recruitment. Gary becomes the sixth New Jersey product to join Michigan's class, which includes multiple close friends."

Michigan Football passed along highlights of its latest and greatest recruit:

Based on 247Sports' composite rankings, Gary is the first No. 1 overall prospect to choose a non-SEC school since Matt Barkley signed with USC in 2009. It's not easy to beat out the allure of the SEC schools; SB Nation's map of 5-star recruits and their commitments shows the best talent is concentrated the Southeastern United States. 

No less than Alabama, Auburn and Ole Miss were targeting Gary, but he eventually chose the northern program looking to return to former levels of glory.

Gary has the size, power and speed to be a punishing every-down defensive tackle at the next level. The future is bright for both Gary and Michigan football as a whole. 


Alabama Adds Linebackers Ben Davis, Mack Wilson to Already-Terrifying Recruiting Class

According to 247Sports, Scout.com and Rivals.com, Alabama again has the top recruiting class this year (stop me if you've heard this one before).

A number of players made commitments to the Crimson Tide on Wednesday, most notable among them linebackers Ben Davis and Lyndell "Mack" Wilson. They joined offensive tackle Jonah Williams in their pledge to play ball in Tuscaloosa, giving Alabama three 5-star recruits for 2016.

Georgia and Ole Miss also managed to get their own trio of 5-star studs, but neither school's class can match the depth of Alabama's. Head coach Nick Saban is a master recruiter, with former South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier going so far as to call him the best ever, per Bleacher Report's Christopher Walsh:

I think they've had five No. 1 recruiting classes out of the last six years, which has got to make him the greatest recruiter in the history of college football. Arguably, they've got the greatest collection of football players ever assembled for a college team. If the recruiting services are correct, and they're pretty much correct.

Davis is the No. 10 overall recruit and top inside linebacker. He's a legacy recruit for Alabama. His father, Wayne Davis, is the program's all-time leading tackler. Wilson is an outside linebacker and is the program's best prospect at his position in the last decade, per ESPN Stats & Info:

Both players will have to fight tooth and nail to get any playing time as true freshmen, as Alabama's defense is chock full of talented players.

Like some sort of Deep South Death Star, Saban's football juggernaut is primed to terrorize the world of college football for the foreseeable future.

 

Where Will Demetris Robertson Land? 

After Wednesday's commitment frenzy, wide receiver Demetris Robertson is now the only 5-star recruit yet to reveal where he will play college football.

According to 247Sports' Crystal Ball predictions, 45 percent of analysts believe Robertson will choose Notre Dame, while 40 percent think he will join fellow 5-star prospects Jacob Eason (QB), Isaac Nauta (TE) and Mecole Hardman Jr. (ATH) in Georgia. 

247Sports' Jake Rowe notes Robertson's commitment would bump the Bulldogs up to fifth in recruiting class rankings. It would also give them four 5-star recruits, more than any other team in the nation.

While the Fighting Irish are the favorite to land the nation's top wide receiver prospect—they sent their equipment truck to his house for goodness' sake—both Alabama (10 percent) and Stanford (five percent) are in the mix. Walsh noted that Alabama still has room for one more recruit, and Saban "would like to add another offensive playmaker or defensive end."

The prospect of playing for Stanford is reportedly why Robertson is waiting to make a final decision. 

“We just want to take more time,” said Carlos Robertson, Demetris' brother and legal guardian, per Rivals.com's Andrew Ivins. “He also wants to get [his SAT score], so we can take an official visit out to Stanford and see how that is before sitting down and making an informed decision.”

Should he join Georgia, Robertson could make for a special crop of offensive recruits in Athens. Eason is a pro-style quarterback, Nauta a well-rounded tight end and Hardman could play wide receiver at the next level. Add Robertson, and the Bulldogs offense could be a force in the passing game in a couple years' time. 

Robertson can hardly go wrong in his decision, however, as the likes of Notre Dame, Stanford and Alabama should afford him plenty of opportunity to capitalize on his prodigious talents.

 

All player rankings, stats and recruiting info courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.

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FSU Football Recruiting: Meet the Seminoles' 2016 Class

Before national signing day, Florida State had a strong class.

After national signing day, it had an amazing class.

Head coach Jimbo Fisher landed four of his eight Top 100 recruits on the last day of the cycle, including one he flipped from rival Florida. Behind that, he also added a pair of Top 170 recruits.

Even the losses of 4-star athlete Jamel Cook and 3-star athlete Clifford Chattman, to USC and Texas A&M, respectively, couldn't offset a banner Wednesday for the Noles.

Let's meet the class that has Tallahassee buzzing.

 

Full List of Players 

 

Signing Day Breakdown

 

Key Offensive Playmaker

He's not the highest-rated offensive signing (more on that to come), but California quarterback Malik Henry, by virtue of his position and his talent, is the key offensive playmaker in this class.

Before him, FSU's future staked a lot on Deondre Francois' development. Francois, a redshirt freshman, is supposed to be the future at quarterback—either this year or once Sean Maguire graduates—but if any sort of injury, suspension or developmental failure happened, the Noles would have been screwed under center.

Now they have this to fall back on:

Henry and Francois were both Top 70 prospects, which makes them potential cornerstones. They're also linked by IMG Academy, where Francois played two years ago and Henry transferred to from California to replace him. But then, four weeks after arriving at IMG this summer, Henry left under debated circumstances and returned to play his senior year in the Golden State.

Henry is enrolled for spring ball, so he and Francois will spend the next seven months pushing Maguire to start. If Maguire wins and keeps the job all year, Henry and Francois would wage a fun QB battle next offseason. Or one could unseat Maguire this summer.

Either way, the Noles appear set.

 

Key Defensive Playmaker

Looking for someone to step in and play as a freshman?

Levonta Taylor is the safest bet.

Even with roadblocks at cornerback, Taylor's too good to waste on the sideline. He's the No. 7 overall prospect and No. 1 cornerback in the 2016 class. Florida State has signed similar players under Fisher, and those players—with the exception of Tarvarus McFadden, whose story is stilling being written—have all turned into megastars:

Karlos Williams now plays at running back, so maybe it's cheating to include him. But perhaps that's actually fitting, since Taylor also has the skills to play offense. That's one of many things that has endeared him to Noles great Deion Sanders.

"I expect him to walk in there Day 1 and learn the game and to be able to play and contribute," Sanders said of Taylor at the Under Armour All-America Game, per 247Sports' Kevin Flaherty. "He has the attitude. He has the swagger. He has the work ethic."

It takes one great Nole to know one.

 

Best Offensive Line Class in the Country

Thanks in large part to national signing day, Florida State closed with the nation's best offensive line class.

The alpha is offensive tackle Landon Dickerson, a 5-star on 247Sports' site rankings who barely missed that distinction in the composite. But despite that, even the composite scale—the one that ranks him lower—rates him higher than any lineman Fisher has signed at FSU.

Behind that there's Baveon Johnson, the No. 1 center in the class. He's the highest-rated center in the country since 2008 (Michael Brewster, Ohio State).

Then, for depth, there are two 6'7" tackle prospects, Jauan Williams and Josh Ball, who rank inside the national Top 200; a third tackle prospect, Mike Arnold, who ranks No. 1 among prep schoolers; and a guard prospect, Andrew Boselli, whose father is an NFL Hall of Fame candidate.

And that's to say nothing of their other talents, per Safid Deen of Noles Sport:

"It's a tremendous haul," Fisher said of his offensive linemen, per Tomahawk Nation's Bud Elliott. "We've been putting a lot of guys in the NFL, and we run a pro system."

By Elliott's count, the Noles will enter fall camp with 19 scholarship linemen. That would be a record under Fisher.

 

2011 Redux?

Depth is the key to this signing class.

Twelve Top 250 recruits join the six already mentioned above. In total, that makes 18. Seven percent of the Top 250 is coming to Tallahassee.

As a result, this class ranks second among Fisher's seven at Florida State. Only the 2011 class graded higher:

That 2011 class was special. It's one of the best of the Internet recruiting era. The big names it produced include:

  • QB Jake Coker
  • RB Karlos Williams
  • RB Devonta Freeman
  • WR Kelvin Benjamin
  • WR Rashad Greene
  • TE Nick O'Leary
  • OT Bobby Hart
  • OG Josue Matias
  • DE Tank Carradine
  • DT Timmy Jernigan
  • LB Terrance Smith

Many of those players formed the spine of Florida State's national championship team. They helped the Noles win 29 straight games. Even though Jameis Winston, the face of those great Florida State teams, arrived one year later, the Elevens got the ball rolling.

This new class has similar positional depth. The blue chips are spread like butter across the depth chart. This is how the class looks if you only include Top 250 recruits:

  • QB Malik Henry
  • RB Amir Rasul
  • WR Keith Gavin
  • TE Naseir Upshur
  • OT Landon Dickerson
  • OT Jauan Williams
  • OT Josh Ball
  • OC Baveon Johnson
  • DE Brian Burns
  • DE Janarius Robinson
  • DT Shavar Manual
  • DT Cedric Wood
  • LB Dontavious Jackson
  • LB Josh Brown
  • LB Keion Joyner
  • CB Levonta Taylor
  • CB Carlos Becker
  • CB Kyle Meyers

That's almost an entire starting lineup!

 

Note: Unless otherwise cited, all recruiting info refers to 247Sports' composite ratings. Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter @BLeigh35

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DeForest Buckner Offers Impact Skill Set, Versatility in 2016 NFL Draft

Every year, the NFL draft offers teams the chance to find impact players who can help change the course of the franchise. Loading up on these special individuals creates opportunities for themselves and teammates because of their unique traits.

One of the best prospects in the 2016 NFL draft class is Oregon defensive lineman DeForest Buckner. The 6’7”, 300-pound mammoth was a dominant and versatile playmaker along the Ducks' defensive front the last two seasons. His transition to the NFL will be one of the easier ones from this class.

Recent draft classes have provided several early defensive line contributors: Leonard Williams in 2015, Aaron Donald in 2014, Ezekiel Ansah in 2013 and many more. The film that Buckner has produced over the last two seasons points to him being a bona fide top-10 pick like the aforementioned group.

Before making bold proclamations about Buckner, we need to look at his achievements and background. The enormous Honolulu, Hawaii, native was a 4-star prospect who was recruited by a dozen of the best schools in the nation. He was part of a class that also featured 2015 first-round pick Arik Armstead, 2013 first-round pick Kyle Long and other prospects like Byron Marshall and Bralon Addison.

As good as some of those players were for the Ducks, Buckner has a better resume and film to back it.

The 2015 Pac-12 Conference Defensive Player of the Year had a senior season as big as his frame. Buckner ranked second on the team with 83 tackles and was first with 17 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. It was his fourth consecutive season where his production improved.

Buckner was also first-team All-America and All-Pac-12. He capped off the season with the Morris Trophy award.

This happened despite the team around him struggling to replicate the success it had in previous seasons. Buckner had to do more on his own since the talent around him lessened. His response couldn’t have been better in this situation.

While it’s easy to look at Buckner’s frame and worry about whether that’s the only reason he’s winning, his tape shows a dangerous and versatile player. Playing at Oregon allowed Buckner to be exposed to playing 5-technique in a 3-4 front and 3-technique in a 4-3 front.

Former Oregon defensive coordinator Don Pellum preferred to rush three on a majority of passing plays. This pigeonholed Buckner because he rarely had help as a pass-rusher. But it did allow him to show off his elite run-defending talent.

Being large and having great length is highly advantageous if it’s used correctly. At 6’7”, Buckner plays high because he really doesn’t have a choice; anatomically, he can’t play much lower. Buckner compensates with his Hulk-like upper body strength.

It is difficult to move Buckner off his spot when he lines up as a 3-4 end. His consistency creating space between him and his blocker is difficult to stop because of his extension and sheer strength. Even when he’s not creating force with his lower body he’s able to shed a block and play the ball.

The play above highlights what is constantly littered throughout Buckner’s film. What makes Buckner different than most 3-4 ends isn’t just the physicality of his play style; that’s to be expected from the position. It’s what Buckner does after he gets free from the block. He finishes the play with a tackle for loss in space.

Humans at his size shouldn’t move as well as he does. Yet Oregon often limited Buckner to stay true to its scheme. If it had unleashed him by getting him more single blocks, he’d have surely been even more productive.

Whether Buckner is asked to be a pass-rusher or run defender in a 3-4 front, he’s a low-risk, high-reward player. As a weak-side defender, he will often be playing a finesse left tackle as opposed to a power right tackle. While some NFL teams are getting away from that archetype, many still subscribe to the “strong side must be the run side” roster-building strategy.

This leaves left tackles being athletic but lacking lead in their pants. That’s excellent for Buckner, who has an upward swooping motion with his attack due to his length. Again, this isn’t a negative, but more of a function of his frame. He has a trump card similar to how Calais Campbell of the Arizona Cardinals has learned to win.

When Buckner was given outside protection that forced offenses to leave their left tackle on an island, he flashed better pass-rushing skills than when it was a three-man rush. He was able to formulate and execute a plan of attack more effectively because he could rely on his athleticism more. Below, he swims past Michigan State left tackle Jack Conklin en route to a quarterback hurry.

It’s important to see flashes like this from Buckner since he was rarely in these situations.

Make no mistake about it, he is an elite run defender already at this point in his development. His strength at the point of attack and ability to shed blocks when the ball-carrier nears is parallel to 2015 star Leonard Williams, who also had an uncanny ability to sniff out where plays were heading.

But it’s Buckner's pass rushing that will separate him from being a Pro Bowl star and not just a gap-eater.

Fortunately for 4-3 defenses that need help, Buckner can step into their base defense and provide plenty of support. Versatility is a major positive for Buckner since he might be a better 4-3 3-technique than he is a 3-4 end.

Being at 3-technique allows Buckner to face a guard, who has less length than a tackle. This creates the opportunity for Buckner to be a speed- or pass-rusher without having to deal with the extra space. In a phone booth, Buckner is an absolute nightmare to guard.

We didn’t see Buckner slide inside too often, but he was vicious when unleashed. His ability to bull rush is one of his biggest positives and projects well to the next level. He consistently shows quick but powerful hands that land inside the chest of the blocker.

Once he gets his hands in place, he can manipulate where the blocker will be tossed with his extension. When combined with his quickness, he can completely disrupt how an offense operates.

Sometimes, the versatility tag is applied to players in an attempt to characterize the player lining up at multiple positions. While that can be accurate, true versatility only applies when an individual can be successful at multiple spots. Simply aligning in different positions is worthless if production isn’t coming at each spot.

Buckner certainly has the versatility to excel in whichever scheme he’s drafted for. He’s a good athlete in short spaces and seems to catch blockers off guard with his quick feet. His rapid weight transfer on plays like the one below just isn’t normal for men his size.

Most of what Buckner does is positive, but he has some areas to improve as he enters the NFL.

His matchup with Ohio State left tackle Taylor Decker was the best opportunity to see two great prospects go head-to-head. Decker was the best blocker Buckner faced, albeit it was in his junior season.

Decker got the best of Buckner on the limited snaps they saw each other. Buckner’s inability to use speed moves to the outside shoulder of the tackle was on display when he tried.

Even on a play where Buckner originally failed with his attack, he did end up forcing Decker to reset his feet several times with his power toward the play’s completion. This adjustment was smart and showed the ability to counter despite losing the snap overall.

A second key matchup between the two came on a modified speed-dart play to Buckner’s side. Decker takes a strong zone step to the right and catches Buckner drifting inside, which puts pressure on the weak-side linebacker behind Buckner to make the right read. He doesn’t, instead floating to the pitch man.

Regardless of what else went wrong for Oregon on the play, Buckner was caught off-balance when he recognized the play developing. His shoulders were no longer aligned with the line of scrimmage since his base had been compromised.

The only major knock on Buckner is his ability to handle double-teams. At times, his legs will get skinny when he tries to anchor. He doesn’t have the functional strength to simply reset with his lower body yet, and that issue is compounded when his shoulders aren’t square when he embraces contact.

NFL offenses may target Buckner with this early in his career, but it’s not like handling double-teams is easy for anyone. If execution is solid around the double-team or if Buckner can even stand his own ground decently, then a defensive unit can certainly survive that weakness.

Projecting Buckner to the NFL, he is a versatile and well-rounded defensive lineman. His size and raw power are tremendous positives and will instantly allow him to start in either a 3-4 or 4-3 defense. He can be impactful as a run-stuffer or pass-rusher.

Although Buckner is not a twitched-up athlete who regularly wins off the snap or shows flexibility, he is an above-average athlete on film. When we put the total package of length, power and quickness together, Buckner has enough upside to be a good long-term starter.

Comparisons for Buckner can be difficult because of his size. Calais Campbell is the most similar physically and is likely the high-end side of his ability. The low-end comparison is San Diego’s Corey Liuget, who is also a solid player.

Not everything Buckner does is elite or especially noteworthy when isolated. He is high-functioning in a team role and showed flashes of excellence when he was given the chance to create on his own. His lack of certain physical traits like suddenness and flexibility somewhat limits his upside, but his floor is high and his ceiling still considerably good.

In the 2016 class, Buckner should be a top-10 pick. He’s a safe prospect with his ability to play at a high level as a rookie. Buckner plays with brutality and a high motor at a premium position. His unique skills and versatility shouldn’t be taken for granted.

 

All stats used are from Sports-Reference.com.

Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. 

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USC Football Recruiting: Meet the Trojans' 2016 Class

A huge surge of commitments on national signing day helped propel USC to another strong recruiting class, finishing in the top 10 for the third year in a row.

The Trojans ended up eighth in the country in 247Sports' composite rankings thanks to adding seven players on Wednesday, three of whom had previously been committed to other schools. This allowed the class to rise from 20th in less than 24 hours, getting a final boost late in the day when 5-star cornerback Jack Jones continued the program's pipeline from Long Beach Poly High School.

All told, USC added 20 players—19 from high school—including seven who had signed in December and are already enrolled in school. The signings addressed immediate needs and should help provide depth in other areas, making for an impressive first class for Clay Helton.

"As a head coach, I cannot tell you how proud I am of the staff for how they finished and how they closed," Helton said, per Lindsey Thiry of the Los Angeles Times.

Follow along for a more detailed look at the next wave of future USC standouts.

 

The surprises

USC's class got a major boost thanks to a trio of players whom recruiting experts didn't think it had a good shot at, mostly because those players were already committed elsewhere.

It started early on Wednesday when Jamel Cook flipped from Florida State, giving USC two players from the Miami area along with receiver Keyshawn Young. The 6'4", 190-pound Cook, who played safety and cornerback in high school, is the cousin of FSU running back Dalvin Cook.

Hawaiian running back Vavae Malepeai backed out on a pledge to Oregon, and later, Long Beach City College defensive tackle Joshua Fatu opted not to sign with Boise State. Malepeai, who is 5'11" and 195 pounds, is the state career record holder in rushing yards (4,549) and touchdowns (71).

Another shock came when E.J. Price, an offensive tackle from Georgia who seemed like a lock to stay close to home, picked a USC hat instead of one for Georgia or Auburn.

The 6'6", 311-pound Price is one of two players from the Peach State in USC's 2016 class along with receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe. He's the brother of tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe, who sat out last season after transferring from Florida.

 

Early enrollees

Seven of USC's signees will be able to participate in spring practice after enrolling for this semester, including the class' highest-rated player. Oluwole Betiku, the No. 2 player from California, committed to the Trojans on Christmas after previously being set to go to UCLA.

The 6'3”, 240-pound defensive end is originally from Nigeria, moving first to Maryland in 2013 and then coming to California along with mentor and former NFL star Lavar Arrington. Depending on how he develops, he could end up working on the edge or moving to linebacker with the Trojans.

Four other early enrollees were 4-star prospects, including two of the six receivers USC brought in. Imatorbhebhe and Michael Pittman, who are 6'2" and 6'4", respectively, can help the Trojans prepare for the inevitable departure of JuJu Smith-Schuster to the NFL draft after the 2016 season.

 

Sleeper of the class

Connor Murphy was among the players who Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh tried to recruit via a “sleepover,” but it wasn't enough to sway the 4-star Phoenix prospect from signing with USC. He could end up being the jewel of the 2016 class if he's able to keep growing into his 6'7", 250-pound body.

"[He] has all of the tools to be a big-time player," Scout.com's Jason Jewell wrote. "Still developing and raw physically, but the future is bright as he continues to grow."

Murphy has the versatility to get used at multiple spots on the defensive line or get moved to offense in the future.

 

Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP

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Florida Football Recruiting: Meet the Gators' 2016 Class

The Florida Gators look to be in great shape moving forward following Jim McElwain’s first full recruiting class as head coach. 

Florida used a successful 10-4 2015 campaign to help reel in the 13th-ranked recruiting class in the nation, according to 247Sports. The Gators’ class sat in the top 10 heading into 2016 national signing day, but it fell a bit due to surges from other programs and the flip of 4-star defensive tackle Shavar Manuel to in-state rival Florida State. 

Nonetheless, this incoming group will be instrumental in establishing a foundation for McElwain’s program. 

Offense appeared to be a focus for Florida, as 14 of its 25 2016 signees will start their careers on that side of the ball. In addition, five of those 14 are 4-star prospects. This is good news, since the Gators struggled mightily to move the ball in 2015, averaging only 17 points in their last eight games. 

Let us now take a closer look at Florida’s 2016 signing class.

 

Early Enrollees 

A major advantage for Florida’s class is that nearly half of it is already on campus and working out with the team. 

A total of 12 players signed early with the Gators in January, including many of their top pieces in 4-star quarterback Feleipe Franks, 4-star safety Chauncey Gardner and 4-star running back Mark Thompson, a bruising junior college rusher. 

Thompson fills a glaring need for the Gators, who lose leading rusher Kelvin Taylor to the NFL. The team lacks any proven experience at running back, and the 6'2", 230-pound Thompson, who rushed for 1,298 yards and 18 touchdowns at Dodge City Community College last season, will instantly give Florida a powerful, short-yardage rusher who can pick up critical first downs at the end of games. Expect him to lead the team in rushing scores next season. 

Having 12 players on campus early is a tremendous boost for Florida’s roster, as noted by Mark Wheeler of InsideTheGators.com: 

These players will be more acclimated to the collegiate game and the offensive or defensive playbook than their classmates when the 2016 kicks off, increasing the chances of them making an early impact. Great job by McElwain and his staff to get this many kids on campus in January.

 

Florida Looking to Revive Its Passing Attack 

After Will Grier was suspended after six games and subsequently left the Florida program, the 2015 Gators were pitiful moving the ball through the air.

Florida dropped its last three games as Treon Harris, Grier’s replacement, completed 44 percent of his throws for only 445 yards, one touchdown and two picks. The lack of an aerial attack severely hindered the offense, which was forced to rely on Taylor and the ground game. 

McElwain made a concerted effort to add difference-makers in the passing game, and it appears to have paid off, at least on paper. 

Franks is the nation’s fifth-rated pro-style passer. He has phenomenal arm strength and enough mobility in the pocket to find receivers down the field. Take a look at his film and see for yourself. 

Joining Franks is a five-man receiving class, which is headlined by Tyrie Cleveland, the second-ranked receiver in the nation. The longtime Houston commit flipped to the Gators on signing day, which garnered some praise from Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman: 

Cleveland is an electric athlete who will benefit greatly from Franks’ throwing ability in a year or two. Fellow 4-stars Josh Hammond and Freddie Swain join him, giving Florida a deep and talented pass-catching group. 

Given McElwain’s past success in developing NFL quarterbacks Garrett Grayson at Colorado State and AJ McCarron at Alabama, Franks should become a star in Gainesville. Combine that with the bevy of receiving weapons, and you should expect the Gators to produce one of the SEC’s top passing offenses by 2018.

 

Impact Players on Defense 

As is typical of most Florida recruiting classes, the defensive side of the ball will be receiving some big-time playmakers. 

It starts with Gardner. By looking at his tape, it is obvious he brings tremendous speed and versatility to Florida’s defensive backfield. According to Andy Hutchins of SB Nation’s Alligator Army, this should allow Gardner to see the field right away for the Gators: 

The talkative defensive back has the skills to play both nickel back and safety, and Florida has openings available at both positions. Gardner may be destined for an outside corner role eventually, but with Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson set at those positions in 2016, the Cocoa [High School] product's shortest route to the field is probably a jog to the safety spot.

Gardner should be able to excel for Florida and follow in the steps of 2015 All-American Vernon Hargreaves and Tabor as elite Gators defensive backs.

On the defensive line, defensive end Antonneous Clayton will come in as nationally the highest-ranked player in Florida’s 2016 class at No. 26 overall. The accolades are for good reason, as Clayton is arguably the best pass-rushing prospect in America.

McElwain tweeted his excitement for Clayton's arrival:

By looking at his above measurables, it is no wonder this kid is such a force on the edge. He possesses dynamic quickness while using his long arms and 6’3” frame to fend off opposing linemen on his way to the quarterback. 

He will line up opposite of CeCe Jefferson, a 5-star in 2015, to form arguably the SEC’s best young duo of pass-rushers. Look for Clayton to start out as a third-down specialist before earning a full-time role toward the end of this upcoming season.

 

Sleeper 

Each program is looking for a diamond in the rough to join its most heralded recruits as major parts of the team’s future. 

There are plenty of worthy candidates to become that sleeper in Florida’s class. McArthur Burnett is a 3-star athlete capable of contributing in all aspects of the game, while 3-star running back Lamical Perine possesses a nice blend of speed and power out of the backfield. 

Yet Florida’s offensive line situation and the rare physical attributes make 3-star offensive tackle Stone Forsythe the pick here. 

Forsythe is a specimen at nearly 6’8” and 325 pounds. He has ideal size for an offensive tackle and a long reach to keep opposing pass-rushers from getting inside position on him. Take a look at his game film to get some additional perspective on his abilities. 

Possessing the power to block downhill while being able to get out in space to throw blocks makes Forsythe a special prospect with phenomenal potential. 

McElwain sees the same promise in Forsythe. 

“First and foremost, when you think about the size and then you couple that with the athleticism,” McElwain said, per InsideTheGators.com’s Landon Watnick. “[Forsythe] will fit in there.” 

Florida has some depth up front, which will allow Forsythe to redshirt in 2016 and develop his raw ability into a more polished game. When he does, he could be scary. Look for him to become a potential All-SEC performer by his junior season.

All recruiting rankings are courtesy of 247Sports.

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Texas Football Recruiting: Meet the Longhorns' 2016 Class

Another dramatic college football national signing day gave Texas Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong his second-straight top-tier recruiting class at UT. Now it's time for him to get this 2016 class on the same path as last year's group.

With 10 commits within the final 24 hours of the process, Strong and the Longhorns became the story of signing day. In that span alone, the Horns marched from No. 33 all the way into the top-10 before getting bumped back to No. 11.

Considering where this class started, the fans, players and coaches ought to be just fine with the Big 12's top class.

The madness started on Tuesday afternoon when running back Kyle Porter made the surprising decision to commit. From there, it was win after win for Strong's program. The day was highlighted by a flip from LSU commit Erick Fowler (4-star outside linebacker), the addition of four defensive tackles and the huge pledge from No. 1 safety Brandon Jones.

Of course, this is just the beginning with Strong. His last class, a 27-man haul that ranked 10th in the country, ended up featuring six regular starters and 21 contributors.

That's what makes this 2016 group so exciting. Not only is there plenty of talent for Strong to develop, but the class fills pressing needs at quarterback and safety as well as in trenches.

Winning the state wasn't so bad either.

 

Longhorns Back to Winning Texas

Aside from landing some top-notch recruits, Texas' biggest achievement with this 2016 class was proving it's once again a force to be reckoned with when it comes to the state's best players.

It's no secret that the state of Texas has some of the best football talent in the country, and it's a well that every national power wants to tap. Just this cycle, eight different programs have grabbed at least one of the state's top-10 talents. Five of the programs are from outside the state.

That being said, this is the second-straight year that the Longhorns have landed the best class in the state. Led by Jones, the Horns have 11 of the state's top-50 recruits, which is four more than any other program. Six of those players didn't decide until the final day of the cycle.

Whereas Texas won the 2015 cycle thanks to the recruitment of linebacker Malik Jefferson, as noted by SB Nation's Wescott Eberts, the Longhorns had to fight for all of these guys. The Horns especially scored big head-to-head wins over Texas A&M with Jones, 4-star outside linebacker Jeffrey McCulloch, 4-star offensive tackle Jean Delance and 4-star cornerback Eric Cuffee.

Much of this has to do with the December drama in College Station, Texas. The Aggies lost former 5-star quarterbacks Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray in very public fashion, then had to give the dreaded vote of confidence to head coach Kevin Sumlin. That stroke of bad luck gave 5-7 Texas the edge it needed to close strong.

However, the Aggies' misfortune doesn't take away from what Strong, his staff and his players did to bring this class together. It was a total effort, and that's why the Horns once again have some of the best players the state has to offer.

 

Who Will Make an Early Impact?

As previously mentioned, the Longhorns put their last class right to work in 2015. Even if the hope is that the 2016 class doesn't have to get thrown into the fire, there's talent at Texas that belongs on the field.

Jones, McCulloch and Fowler, Texas' top-3 defensive recruits are no-brainers for early action. Jones can play either free safety position, thanks to his 4.3 speed (per Inside Texas' Justin Wells) and uncommon physicality, and should provide instant depth at the very least. Meanwhile, "The Shark" and Fowler are already terrific pass-rushers—players Strong can always find a use for.

The question is whether a freshman can provide help at defensive tackle. Defensive tackles Poona Ford and Paul Boyette have no obvious backups, meaning Texas' five commits at the position will get all they can handle.

Jordan Elliott and Chris Daniels are the top candidates, but tackle is a really tough position for freshmen. Some JUCO help would be welcome here.

Moving to the offensive side of the ball, wide receiver Collin Johnson deserves fans' full attention. The early enrollee comes in as at 6'6"and 200 pounds. He catches and blocks like a grown man. Physically, he's miles ahead of every other receiver on the roster.

As with the defensive side of the ball, freshmen will factor into the O-line rotation. Three-star commit Zach Shackelford has already made a move to center, and he looks like he's making a move for the job as an early enrollee. Jean Delance is too athletic to count out at right tackle.

 

Dark Horse of the Class: OL Denzel Okafor

Charlie Strong called 3-star defensive end Andrew Fitzgerald the "dark horse of the class" in Wednesday's press conference, but the cat's already out of the bag on him. Fitzgerald dominated the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, which justifiably made him the No. 205 prospect in the nation.

Leaving him out only makes this slightly easier, but 4-star offensive guard Denzel Okafor gets the nod.

All three of Texas' 3-star linemen have good potential. Shackelford is legitimately making a play for a starting job, and Tope Imade is a dancing bear at 6'4" and 327 pounds. These guys aren't just throw-ins.

Okafor is interesting, though. At 6'4", 295 pounds, he has enough length to swing out to tackle, and his mobility makes him an ideal fit for O-line coach/running game coordinator Matt Mattox's scheme.

Much like senior guard Kent Perkins, Okfaor can help Texas anywhere it needs him, and Inside Texas' Eric Nahlin loves his fundamental skill set. It may not be this year, but Okafor will be an impact player up front.

As a bonus, fans are going to be shocked by Porter, the late running back commit. Maybe it's because his recruitment was so low-key, but he has the power, quickness, vision and receiving skills to be special.

The Longhorns basically stole one of the best backs in the nation.

 

Most Important Offensive Recruit: QB Shane Buechele

Until the Longhorns find a quarterback, every one of them who the program recruits will be the most important member of the class.

This time around, the microscope is on 4-star quarterbackShane Buechele. However, the state's top quarterback comes in with one important distinction—he's already a polished passer.

Whereas Tyrone Swoopes, Jerrod Heard, Kai Locksley and even Matthew Merrick were recruited as raw passers, Buechele's got that part of his game down. As Inside Texas' Ian Boyd notes in his breakdown, he gets the ball out quickly, accurately and on time, no matter where he's asked to throw it. He's also a decent athlete to boot.

The issue for the early enrollee will be getting to where he can physically and mentally handle the college game. Buechele's not a big prospect by any means, and there's a reason quarterbacks usually spend a year holding a clipboard.

Ideally, an incumbent will be able to hold the job for a year or two while Buechele gets his bearings. After that, he will put up some huge numbers in offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert's offense.

 

Most Important Defensive Recruit: S Brandon Jones

Texas' five defensive tackles form the most important group of signees on the roster. But if you're singling out one player on the defensive side of the ball, 4-star commit Brandon Jones is in a class by himself.

As previously mentioned, Jones brings everything you could ask for from a safety. He's incredibly fast, knows how to punish ball-carriers and has a nose for getting his hands on the football. Jones can play either safety spot, and it wouldn't be surprising at all to see him man the nickelback position at some point.

Before long, he's going to be one of the leaders in a secondary that's already packed with elite talent.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all recruiting stats and information courtesy of 247Sports.com.

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Tennessee Football Recruiting: Meet the Volunteers' 2016 Class

Right about the time Thompson-Boling Arena was erupting as Tennessee's victorious Volunteers basketball team was upsetting Kentucky on Tuesday night, super-athlete Tyler Byrd settled in on Periscope to drop another dose of Big Orange excitement onto UT fans.

The 5'11", 194-pound cornerback flipped from Tennessee to Miami, following his close friend and longtime running back commitment Carlin Fils-aime to Knoxville.

Twitter erupted with elated Vols fans and writers trying to balance the biggest win of the year on the hardwood with an elite commitment on national signing day eve.

It was a sign of big things to come over the next 18 hours. 

Coach Butch Jones added Nigel Warrior, Latrell Williams and a 6'5", 264-pound cherry on top when Jonathan Kongbo pledged to Tennessee early Wednesday afternoon.

That's the kind of feel-good stretch that wasn't lost on anybody, including one of the basketball Vols who helped start the good vibrations, Armani Moore, then soaked up signing day as a UT football fan:

Indeed, it was a great couple of days to be a Tennessee Vol.

Jones' final class of 21 prospects ranked 14th nationally by the 247Sports Composite. It filled huge needs at defensive back, wide receiver and offensive tackle. The Vols rebuilt their stable of speed and landed their quarterback of the future as well as a potential dynamic running back.

They got immediate-impact help with four JUCO signees, and while falling a bit short on the defensive line, two of those (Kongbo and Alexis Johnson) should immediately settle into the rotation.

Let's take a closer look at the class.

 

New coaches make recruiting ripples

Prior to the recruiting homestretch, Jones did a little luring of his own to the coaching staff that wound up paving the path for the grand finale on the trail.

While defensive coordinator Bob Shoop's prowess will be felt right away on the field, it was former Miami interim coach Larry Scott's hiring as the new tight ends coach that wound up being a home run. 

The veteran coach immediately injected a dose of orange into a South Florida region that is prospect-rich and also had been devoid of any Tennessee buzz in recent years. Scott helped UT get a foot back in the door on Byrd and Williams, two players he'd had some involvement with while coaching the Hurricanes.

That legwork wound up helping produce two flips. 

Jones didn't mince words when discussing Scott's impact—and the fallout—on Wednesday, according to Volquest's Paul Fortenberry and GoVols247's Wes Rucker:

If Scott's prowess was felt this early with basically just a month on Rocky Top under his belt, imagine how much the Vols can benefit from him recruiting the region moving forward.

Shoop, meanwhile, wasn't discussed as a primary recruiter much, but it's clear prospects felt comfortable with him. Focusing on defense down the stretch, the Vols landed Warrior, Kongbo and Byrd after Shoop's hiring.

Immediately following his hire, a then-uncommitted Kongbo tweeted his approval:

He recommitted and signed with UT on Wednesday, and it's hard to imagine the nation's top-rated JUCO player would have done so over the likes of Florida State, Alabama, USC and Ole Miss had he not been comfortable with the coordinator.

So, Jones' hires were big hits with prospects.

 

NFL bloodlines run deep in Vols class of '16

The sons and nephews of former Tennessee football players have been very good to Jones and the rebuilding of UT's football program the past few years.

Now, it's time to see if NFL legacies pay the same dividends.

Jones secured signing papers from four prospects in this year's recruiting class who had family members play in the NFL. Two of them are the sons of former All-Pros.

The group, of course, is led by Warrior. Every Vols fans knows by now that his father is UT legend Dale Carter, who also starred with the Kansas City Chiefs.

His high school teammate will also join him in Knoxville. Baylen Buchanan committed to Tennessee on New Year's Day and held strong even after an offer from Ohio State. His father is former Atlanta Falcons great "Big Play" Ray Buchanan, as confirmed by a photo in Tennessee's confirmation tweet:

Brandon Johnson is the son of former Miami Hurricanes All-American and Florida Marlins All-Star catcher Charles Johnson, but he's also the nephew of Chad "Ocho Cinco" Johnson. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano's father, James, played briefly for the San Diego Chargers after his career at Rutgers.

 

Biggest immediate impact

With so many positions dripping with talent from Jones' past couple of classes, the Vols don't really need a lot of quick fixes on the roster. The 2016 edition of UT should be ready to compete for championships almost as it is.

But there were a couple of needs that had to be addressed, and the Vols did it.

Warrior, Byrd and Alexis Johnson all could carve roles right away along with tight end Austin Pope and the other JUCO players. But Kongbo should provide the biggest impact.

The defensive lineman from the Republic of Congo via British Columbia, Wyoming and Arizona is big, athletic and versatile. He can line up on the edge opposite Derek Barnett and help Tennessee fill the void Curt Maggitt vacated. The Yuma Sun's Grady Garrett provided a video of Kongbo discussing his decision to select Tennessee:

Sure, Corey Vereen, Kyle Phillips and LaTroy Lewis all have the ability to start at end, and the additions of Darrell Taylor and Andrew Butcher will be big, too. But Kongbo is a special talent. It's also not out of the question with his body size and with three years remaining that he could play some in a 3-technique, too.

Whether Kongbo plays inside or out, one thing's for certain: He'll play. A lot. 

Johnson will, too, just based out of sheer need. But Kongbo is going to be part of the defensive line rotation because he's simply too spectacular a player to keep on the sideline.

Kongbo was such a huge part of Tennessee's class that it became a team effort luring him to Knoxville rather than Oxford, Mississippi, down the stretch. Derek Barnett called him early in the day.

Then, Todd Kelly Jr. tweeted that he'd contacted him. Running back Alvin Kamara even got on Periscope with him during the national signing day festivities being videoed in Knoxville before Kongbo had made up his mind. Barton Simmons of 247Sports pointed out the "entire defense" recruited Kongbo:

The nation's top programs wanted him, and there's a reason for that.

Rivals.com national analyst Mike Farrell noted in the moments after he committed to the Vols over Ole Miss and the nation's top-ranked player Rashan Gary pledged to Michigan that those two teams got the players of the day:

That's high praise. "King Kongbo" has a cool nickname, but he's got the game to back up the moniker. The Vols hope he causes as much destruction as his namesake.

 

Star of the class

There are several guys who can carry the banner as Tennessee's bell cow of the class. Given the long-term potential of players such as Guarantano and Warrior, as well as Kongbo, Marquill Osborne and Marquez Callaway, there's a lot of talent in this year's stable.

But Byrd is a next-level playmaker.

When placed on the field with the best prospects in the country at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, he showed out. 

Players like him just stick out like a swollen thumb on film. He may not have the best 40 time, but when the pads go on and he gets in the game, he has another gear. The explosion he shows, his hip fluidity and his coverage skills make him elite. 

With a little polish, he's got the ability to be a shutdown cornerback and a first-round NFL draft selection. He's long and lanky, yet effortlessly and aggressively goes after passes. 

As exceptional as Warrior can be, Byrd just looks like a slightly better player on film, and he was playing against great competition while at Naples (Florida) High School, too.

Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman interviewed an anonymous Power Five assistant for a story on prospects who could play right away back when Byrd was committed to Miami, and the assistant opined of Byrd: "He's just a baller. Watch him in the Army All-American Game. He blocks a kick and returns it. Then, he picks off a pass. He's a great competitor."

Byrd steps into a secondary just brimming with talent, so it's possible his biggest help in 2016 will be on special teams. But he's the kind of player who, with a little coaching, won't be able to keep on the sideline.

Whether it's next year or not, Byrd's ceiling to shine is higher than anybody else's in Tennessee's class.

 

Sleeper of the class

Again, a few different players fit this bill in a class that isn't as top-loaded as Jones' past couple of national signing days have boasted.

Offensive tackle Marcus Tatum initially comes to mind, but just because he's a 3-star doesn't mean he's a sleeper. Virtually the entire SEC offered the undersized lineman with a big frame and high upside. He ultimately chose UT over Florida, Alabama, Miami, Auburn and others.

But in the truest sense of the word, a definite sleeper who could shine is Pope.

The 6'4", 219-pound tight end is the nation's 655th-ranked player and 35th-ranked tight end, according to 247Sports' composite rankings.

When he camped at Tennessee and earned an offer, Pope was right on the cusp of breaking out. But, at the time, the attention he was beginning to draw hadn't materialized in offers. Still, once the hometown Vols offered the Christian Academy of Knoxville standout, it didn't take him long to accept.

He told GoVols247's Wes Rucker why recently:

As far as regretting anything? No, I don't. A lot of guys like to get 30 offers and all this other crap, and they give out their top-15 list and their top-10 list. I don't find that realistic, you know? Right before I committed to Tennessee, Miami was gonna offer me. TCU got in the mix. Michigan State in the mix. USC was gonna offer me. Georgia was gonna offer me.

The only other realistic place I could have seen myself playing was Georgia. That was the other place I thought I could play at. But I haven't had any regrets about any of it. Getting all those offers, that's just to build yourself up, and I know who I am and where I belong. And that's why I decided to commit to Tennessee.

Pope comes from a small private school that also provided the Vols with receiver Josh Smith and offensive tackle Brett Kendrick. The newest addition hopes to crack the rotation like his former two teammates.

He has the ability to, maybe as soon as 2016. 

The Vols are looking for a tight end to back up Ethan Wolf following Alex Ellis graduating. While there are some candidates already on the roster such as Jakob Johnson, Neiko Creamer and perhaps even jumbo receiver Jason Croom, Pope will get a shot.

He already has the attention of his position coach, according to Scout.com's Cory Gunkel:

Pope is a little bit undersized and could use a year in the weight room, but it won't be long before he's on the field. He's too talented not to be.

 

All quotes and information gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information gathered from 247Sports, 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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