ATLANTA — With a surname like ‘Warrior,’ how can the kid possibly fail at football?
With ‘Carter’ genes, how can the kid not make his college home in the secondary?
The Tennessee Volunteers got an early bounce of good news on National Signing Day, when Nigel Warrior — the No. 7-ranked player in the state of Georgia (according to 247Sports.com) — chose Tennessee over an SEC-addled list of finalists (Auburn, Alabama, UGA, LSU).
“When the (Tennessee coaches) talked to me, they had me thinking about real life (instead of just football),” says Warrior, whose dad, Dale Carter, enjoyed collegiate life at Tennessee (1991 Consensus All-American) before cultivating a solid NFL career from 1992-2005 (first-round pick, 1992 Defensive Rookie of the Year, one-time world champion, two-time All-Pro, four-time Pro Bowler).
“They showed (me) that they really care,” marveled Warrior of the Tennessee coaches, just seconds before pulling out a white Vols cap to commemorate the signing at the College Football Hall of Fame.
A 4-star safety from Suwanee, Ga. (Peachtree Ridge High School), Warrior has the requisite size (6-foot, 186 pounds) and look of an SEC-caliber defensive back. His complementary combination of speed, toughness, intelligence and instincts also contributed to the high ranking with 247Sports, where Warrior rates as the nation’s No. 4 safety and the state of Georgia’s premier recruit among defensive backs (for 2016).
Warrior joins a stellar recruiting class at Tennessee (top 20 nationally), which currently has six other players ranked among 247Sports.com’s 103 best players for 2016 (early enrollees, signees, hard commits) — defensive tackle Alexis Johnson, wide receiver Jeff George (junior college signee) and cornerback Desmond Henderson, among others.
It’s a strong follow-up for head coach Butch Jones’ respective classes from 2014 and ’15, which ranked fourth and seventh nationally. By extension, the on-track success of the 2016 class should raise the bar of expectations for the Volunteers, who enter the fall as the trendy pick for the SEC East title and a subsequent berth in the conference championship game.
And that’s a good thing. After all, it’s time for the Volunteers — with Jones (21-17 overall) entering Year 4 of his Knoxville regime — to move beyond the occasional fun of upsetting a conference rival, handling Vanderbilt, Missouri, Kentucky with minimal resistance, taking second or third in a watered-down East division or subsequently invading sun-splashed Florida cities like Tampa (Outback Bowl) and Jacksonville (TaxSlayer Bowl) during the postseason.
It’s also time for Tennessee to stop going 1-2 or 0-3 against the annual Big Three of Alabama, Florida and UGA, which might rationalize why the Volunteers haven’t earned at least a share of an SEC East title since 2007.
The Volunteers’ 39-point demolition of Northwestern in the Outback Bowl also made the college pundits take notice. Armed with a strong senior-to-be quarterback (Joshua Dobbs), Heisman Trophy candidate (tailback Jalen Hurd — 130 yards, one TD in the Outback) and a fast, physical, ball-hawking defense (ranked 16th nationally in points allowed for 2015), Tennessee has enough talent and experience to be a top-10 program for large chunks of the 2016 campaign.
The schedule fits well into that plan. Tennessee has winnable non-conference outings against Appalachian State (home), Ohio (home), Tennessee Tech (home) and a cool, neutral-site clash with Virginia Tech, on the hallowed NASCAR grounds of Bristol (Va.) Motor Speedway.
On the SEC side, there are doable trips to Texas A&M, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and one daunting clash with UGA. On the home front, the Volunteers take on Florida (Sept. 24), Alabama (Oct. 15), Kentucky (Nov. 12) and Missouri (Nov. 19).
The one downside: There are no byes for the four-game gauntlet of Florida, UGA, Texas A&M and Alabama.
The one upside to that: Thanks, in part, to high-upside talents like Warrior, Tennessee also has enough depth and blue-chippers to weather a storm that should magically clear up after Alabama leaves Knoxville in mid-October (one bye, then five winnable games to close the season).
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.