Despite a rocky start to the the 2017 recruiting cycle on Rocky Top, it would be unwise to bet against Tennessee head coach Butch Jones building yet another stellar group.
After all, only Alabama, Ohio State and Florida State have signed more 4- and 5-star players than the Volunteers in the past three years.
Yes, this year's national signing day just came and went last week, but scouting and selling your university to players never stops. Coaching staffs all over the country have already turned their attention to the prospects in next year's class, and it's no different at Tennessee.
The Vols should be able to sign a full class of 25 in 2017 after having to be judicious with numbers this year. That's a good thing, too.
It may just wind up being the best in-state crop of prospects ever in Tennessee, as there appear to be more than 20 players who will wind up playing high-level Football Bowl Subdivision football.
"We've been hearing about the 2017 class in Tennessee for a few years now, with people saying it could be the best in the state's history, and it appears to be living up to the hype so far," GoVols247 recruiting analyst Ryan Callahan told B/R. "There are several elite prospects and a number of others who are likely to be SEC-level players. And other names are still emerging, as they do every year.
"It's as impressive of a class as I've ever seen in Tennessee."
So who are some of the top players to watch? What are some of the early storylines that look like they'll materialize over the course of the next year? Where are the areas of need for the Vols moving forward?
Way too early to be looking at lists and top targets? Well, sure it is. But where's the fun in waiting? Let's take a glance at what to expect from the Vols in the 2017 recruiting cycle.
About that rough beginning…
Early commitments are great when you can get the players to hang on, but Tennessee hasn't had any luck with that so far in its 2017 recruiting efforts.
After getting off to a torrid start with verbal pledges from 3-star strong-side defensive end Jordon Riley, 5-star quarterback Hunter Johnson and 4-star receiver Tee Higgins, all three have decommitted.
The latest of those came from Higgins, the electrifying 6'5" wide receiver from nearby Oak Ridge, Tennessee, who decided to take a step back and re-evaluate his college choices, since he wants to play football and basketball at the next level. Tennessee is going to give him the opportunity to do that, but he wants to be sure.
Higgins—a massive in-state target the Vols simply can't afford to lose out on—tweeted that Tennessee will still be in heavy consideration for his signature.
There's a long way to go before next year's class is in place, but things are lining up for Tennessee to have a potentially huge, talent-rich class. However, the breaks haven't fallen the Vols' way, at least in the early going.
Most Vols fans probably weren't pulling for hated rival Alabama in the national championship game, but it's the other team that's giving UT fits right now. Clemson may wind up being a major detriment to the Vols' 2017 recruiting efforts.
Johnson flipped from Tennessee to the Tigers already. Higgins, Knoxville Catholic High School receiver Amari Rodgers (Tee Martin's son) and key linebacker target Justin Foster are giving them a lot of attention, too. Meanwhile, offensive tackle target Blake Vinson pledged to Dabo Swinney last week.
So the two orange teams are going head-to-head early, and Swinney is winning right now. The Tigers are hot on the recruiting trail currently, but a lot can change.
Not only did the three decommitments occur, but two of the top players in the state seem wide open with others ahead of UT. JaCoby Stevens committed to LSU early but has since backed off that pledge and has the Vols in his top group. Maleik Gray talks a lot about Florida State and USC, but he seems open to Tennessee, too.
Those kids are national prospects, and Jones will really have to show his recruiting chops to get them in orange. Just how receptive will they be? Hopefully for Tennessee, they'll listen more than 2016 receiver Dillon Mitchell, who had his heart set on Oregon.
Gray told Volquest.com's Austin Price last week that he has the Vols on his mind.
"I've spoken with JaCoby [Stevens], Princeton [Fant] and Gentry Bonds about the chance to stay in-state and player together," Gray said. "They were for it so it's definitely something we could all end up doing."
That would be big news for Tennessee if all of those guys decided to stay home.
Jones and crew won't have to log as many miles this year to pull in a top-ranked class, but they will definitely have to put in plenty of extra work. The Vols are batting with the big boys in recruiting now, and they came away with a few late home runs in the 2016 cycle.
But next year's class will be pivotal, and they've got plenty of time to rally from a bummer beginning.
Biggest needs are clear
Perhaps the most under-appreciated aspect of the 2017 class is the fact that the Vols could address all the gaps on their roster address with impact players and eliminate them altogether.
Each year, Jones' classes have not only elevated the athleticism and talent on the roster, they've also made the Vols deeper and deeper. At times throughout this year's class, the players already on a healthy UT team allowed Jones to get into taking the best players available, regardless of position.
When teams can do that, you're able to take highly ranked difference-makers without fear of falling behind from a numbers standpoint.
Up to this point, this Tennessee coaching staff has been making up for the lingering deficiencies the last coaching regime left in its wake. Soon, that will no longer be the case.
With their needs dwindling, the Vols should be ready to begin redshirting a lot of young players, which leads to a seasoned roster of well-prepared players on the depth chart. They have the opportunity to shore up some desperation spots this year and finally be caught up after this season.
They can be pickier, too.
Bob Welton, UT's director of player personnel, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown following the conclusion of the 2016 class that the Vols were able to do that this year, too.
The great thing we have now, what Coach [Jones] has done here, is our culture's set. ... There's a culture here. Before, with these other recruiting classes, we had to kind of bring kids in to create that culture. Well, these kids now have to fit the culture. That's a lot more fun to go out to recruit kids in which the character part plays a big role, because they've got to be able to fit what we're doing now.
So before we talk about some of the players for you to keep an eye on as you begin to build your list of "wants" for Tennessee, you have to know the team's biggest needs.
Without question, three areas stick out while another one will be important, too. The Vols must sign at least two quality running backs and three good defensive tackles. If they don't do that, the class won't be considered a success.
On top of that, defensive end needs addressing, too, since Corey Vereen and LaTroy Lewis are out of eligibility following the 2016 season and stud junior-to-be Derek Barnett is almost certainly heading to the NFL early.
Those are the three biggest needs Jones needs to set his sights on.
Getting another couple of offensive tackles would be big, too, though it would fall fourth on the list of UT's priorities.
If the Vols can recruit elite players to those areas, it would fill nine or 10 spots in the class, and it would mean the program would be on firm footing to establish sustained success over the next several seasons.
Who are some top targets to remember?
Everybody's list is going to vary, but several players are already emerging as viable, necessary targets for Tennessee's 2017 class.
Gray, Stevens, Bonds, Higgins, Rodgers, Foster and Fant have already been mentioned. Every single one of those guys is pivotal, and they'll all be heavily pursued until the Vols can get them to Knoxville or until they elect to sign with other teams.
That's a start to the elite names that will be topping the list on the Vols' war room whiteboard.
But there are plenty more.
Since running back is a pivotal position in this class, perhaps one of the top three or four overall targets has to be Montgomery Bell Academy runner Ty Chandler. The 5'11", 190-pound athlete is an elite runner right in UT's backyard from a school the Vols have successfully recruited from in recent years.
Yes, he's an Ole Miss legacy, and it's difficult to rule out coach Hugh Freeze these days when it comes to recruiting. But Jones has enjoyed his share of success winning battles against Freeze in the past two years—most notably in landing the signing day commitments of Drew Richmond and Jonathan Kongbo over the past two years.
Chandler is a dynamic 4-star running back who may just be Tennessee's top target at the position. But he's far from the only one.
Tennessee is home to two more legit runners in Cordarrian "Big Baby" Richardson and Vols legacy Chase Hayden. The latter could wind up playing a lot of different positions at UT, and considering that his father is former Vols runner Aaron Hayden, it would be unwise to bet against the Vols luring him to Knoxville.
Four other major Vols targets who need to be mentioned are 5-star Loganville, Georgia, athlete Deangelo Gibbs, electrifying dual-threat quarterback N'Kosi Perry, Pennsylvania 5-star cornerback Lamont Wade and Jackson, Tennessee, offensive tackle Trey Smith.
Gibbs will be one of the most highly recruited prospects in the entire nation, and Tennessee winning the Nigel Warrior sweepstakes could pay huge dividends for the Vols in his recruitment. The 6'2", 207-pound defensive back/linebacker is Warrior's first cousin as well as the nephew of former UT legend Dale Carter (Warrior's dad).
When Warrior visited Knoxville officially on the final weekend before national signing day, Gibbs was with him on an unofficial visit. That's huge for the Vols, as Gibbs is one of the most freakish athletes in the class.
With Johnson flipping to Clemson, the Vols need a quarterback, and Perry is a dynamic athlete who is arguably at the top of UT's list right now. He was committed to Miami for a while but backed off that this week, according to 247Sports' David Lake. UT could be a major player there.
Smith loves Tennessee and Alabama, and the Vols have really done a good job recruiting the Jackson area under Jones, so getting a player of Smith's ilk at a spot like offensive tackle that teams must address every year would be huge.
Finally, with the defensive line being such a major need, who are some of the players who will emerge there? That will be a long list that will change countless times between now and next February, but a few guys the Vols are in on early could wind up being important commits.
In-state target Rutger Reitmaier is a player the Vols like a lot from Nashville who could get the class off to a nice start at the position. They've shown him a lot of early attention, and it would be big for UT if he could reciprocate that love with a quick commitment.
The Virginia trio of Eric Crosby, Jordan Williams and Elijah Conliffe are vital to Tennessee's class, and Riley is another one who could re-commit at some point. That list will swell, and the Vols will wind up being in on a lot of high-profile players with playing time to sell.
If that seems like a lot of early names to digest, it's because boards are just now beginning to fill out, and the Vols are in the early stages of shaping how they want things to shake out next year.
It's going to be a big cycle for Jones in terms of keeping Tennessee's program heading in the right direction. Getting a few guys to pledge early and getting the peer recruiting going would go a long way in making the 2017 class one of Jones' best yet.
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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If you're bummed about the end of college football season, especially after national signing day, remember there's a light at the end of the tunnel.
It might be seven months away, but when Week 1 of next season arrives, it will feature the best slate of opening games in recent memory. And even that might be selling it short.
"The best day in college football history is coming," wrote USA Today's Dan Wolken two years ago. Kevin Kelley of FBS Schedules wrote more of the same. The matchups are so compelling they've been hyped since 2014.
So, without further ado, let's break them open. Here are 10 games whose teams and stories make us giddy for fall to arrive.
Sound off below and let us know where you disagree!
2015 was a year of change in college football coaching circles. Twenty-eight FBS head coaching positions changed hands, with the final move coming just days before national signing day when Southern Miss’ Jeff Monken left for an assistant coaching position with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
College football head coaching has never been known for its longevity or stability, and this offseason’s coaching carousel was especially harsh. Of the top 10 longest-serving coaches with a single institution, six either retired, were fired or changed jobs (or both). That made for a significant shakeup among coaches deemed to be the most stable.
For comparison, here's FootballScoop's national coaching tenure list entering 2015. Gone now are names such as Frank Beamer, Steve Spurrier, Mark Richt and Gary Pinkel.
We have a different group among the nation’s 10 longest-tenured head coaches, and we’re going to break them down for you. A note: Bill Snyder has spent 24 seasons as Kansas State’s head coach, but he is not on this list because he “retired” from 2006 to 2008 before replacing his replacement, Ron Prince, as the Wildcats’ head coach.
Just missing this list of ultimate longevity? Air Force’s Troy Calhoun, Alabama’s Nick Saban, Rice’s David Bailiff, Old Dominion’s Bobby Wilder (with time as an FCS head coach included) and Baylor’s Art Briles. Who made the list? Let’s break it down.
Baylor football head coach Art Briles has built one of the most potent offenses in college football over the past five years. But he hasn't exactly churned out successful NFL prospects.
Over the past five NFL drafts, Baylor has produced just five top-100 draft picks. That number jumps to six with the inclusion of wide receiver Josh Gordon, a second-round pick in the 2012 NFL supplemental draft.
The skill position players in that group have had moderate success at best. Off-field issues aside, Gordon has established himself as an elite receiver. But the others—Robert Griffin III, Kendall Wright and Terrance Williams—have been either been benched or are role players in their respective NFL offenses.
In most cases, it's best to ignore these apparent trends when evaluating the next top prospect from a given school—in this case, Baylor wide receiver Corey Coleman.
Players fail to reach their ceiling at the next level for a wide range of reasons, and to assume those reasons will impact other prospects from the same school is just silly. But Art Briles' offensive scheme creates a unique situation that may tie the NFL failures of his prospects together.
To evaluate Coleman, let's take a look at some of his strengths, weaknesses and role in Baylor's offense impact his chances of succeeding in the NFL.
What constitutes a route in Baylor's offense looks more like something drawn up on a playground than anything you'll find in an NFL playbook.
For example, the route Coleman runs below can loosely be described as a stop-and-go route. However, Coleman's movements appear to indicate he's reacting to the quarterback rather than running a designed route.
Coleman's slow stop-and-side shuffle on the sideline isn't fooling Oklahoma State's cornerback, let alone any NFL scouts. His only hope of creating separation on this play is to simply outrun the cornerback once he restarts his route.
No NFL coach will teach this route because you can never assume your quarterback will have enough time in the pocket to complete the pass. For Coleman to run an effective stop-and-go route, he'll need to be crisp in his stop and explosive as he restarts.
Is Coleman capable of adjusting his routes to meet NFL standards? Probably.
He's clearly an elite athlete with exceptional speed. There's no reason to believe he isn't capable of running this route at an NFL level, but the fact that he hasn't done it raises a sliver of doubt.
Even this stop-and-go route is fairly complex for Baylor's offense.
The overwhelming majority of Coleman's targets came on screens, go routes and curl routes, which are routes he usually ad-libs and runs to find soft spots in zone coverage.
Here's an example of Coleman running a go route against Oklahoma State. While it showcases his speed, there's no shortage of receivers in the NFL capable of making these types of plays.
Baylor's spread offense creates these types of wide-open opportunities for Coleman on a regular basis, which severely limited the need for him to develop the nuanced route-running technique to create separation on his own.
One of the most NFL-ready receivers evaluated in recent years was New York Giants star Odell Beckham Jr., due to the incredible suddenness in his movements. Even at LSU, he could lose defensive backs in a single step due to his start-and-stop ability.
This play demonstrate the remarkable route-running technique Beckham displayed at LSU.
Unfortunately, we've never seen this from Coleman at Baylor. Due to the offense Baylor runs, he is rarely locked in tight coverage like this downfield.
It's important to reiterate that this doesn't mean Coleman can't run routes like Beckham. The raw athleticism is there for him to develop into an effective route-runner in the NFL.
But the fact that he hasn't been asked to run these routes will limit his ability to make an immediate impact at the next level.
Unrelated to Baylor's offense, Coleman's ability to compete for contested catches is one of the reasons his game should transition well to the NFL.
Smaller receivers often struggle with this aspect of the game, but Coleman has demonstrated a willingness to battle for the ball and take some hits.
This skill was put on full display against Kansas State when he came down with this remarkable touchdown reception:
Battling for contested catches is an important trait for a receiver to display in college because it's difficult to teach.
These types of receptions require a focus and fearlessness that coaches can't instill in a player. Perhaps a player can improve with more reps, but there's never a surefire way to develop this skill in a young receiver.
The fact that Coleman has already displayed this ability should ease coaches' concerns about his ability to transition to the NFL.
So, can Coleman buck the trend and make a smooth transition from Baylor's offense to the NFL?
Based on his speed and all-around athleticism, the answer is definitely yes. But because of his role in Baylor's offense, there's more doubt than there would be if he had experience in a more pro-style system.
Most of the receivers who have made an immediate impact in recent years—Beckham and Amari Cooper are the best examples—have done so due to their remarkably refined route-running skills.
The ability to create separation, even in quick routes and against more athletic defensive backs, is what takes a talented receiver and turns him into an elite receiver. Beckham and Cooper demonstrated those skills from the minute they set foot on an NFL practice field.
Coleman is far behind those two, and most others, in terms of his development.
So while Coleman's long-term future is more of a projection than a sure thing, he does show traits that should lead to some moments of success.
Receivers who excel in one area can still make an immediate impact. For example, Kelvin Benjamin was perhaps the most fundamentally erratic prospect I've scouted at the receiver position. But due to his 6'5", 240-pound frame and impressive leaping ability at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, the Carolina Panthers found an immediate role for him in their offense.
Coleman wins with much different traits than Benjamin, but the example still applies. With his speed and ability to compete for contested catches, he should immediately find a role as a deep threat.
Whether or not he develops into a more well-rounded receiver will be up to him and his willingness to master the technique of creating separation with his footwork rather than simply with his pure speed.
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