Butch Jones’ 2016 Tennessee recruiting class wasn’t as heralded as many of his previous recruiting classes, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t include a bevy of seriously gifted players.
In its first season, many members of Tennessee’s class of 2016 received opportunities to contribute right away.
Of the 22 members of the class, 13 saw playing time in at least one game.
Those 13 players combined for 107 games, including five players who played in at least 10 of 13 games and three others who played in nine games. If there’s one knock, however, it’s that the group only managed to turn 7 of those 107 game appearances into starts — 2 each for Baylen Buchanan, Jonathan Kongbo and Jeff George and 1 for Nigel Warrior.
Most of the snaps for Tennessee’s 2016 recruiting class came on defense, but there were a few notable contributors at the receiver and running back positions.
Receiver Tyler Byrd looks to be a major contributor for the Vols in 2017. He showed off his ability by catching 15 passes for 209 yards as a true freshman and even had 8 carries for 63 yards, although he didn’t get a touchdown. With a talented group of receivers ahead of them, Byrd, George and fellow ’16 recruit Marquez Callaway must excel to see significant upticks in playing time.
Carlin Fils-aime, on the other hand, has a chance to be a major contributor in 2017 in place of Alvin Kamara. Fils-aime didn’t get much playing time behind John Kelly and Kamara, but he had 2 touchdowns on his 14 carries for 58 yards. His 14 carries are the second-most for a returning Tennessee running back behind Kelly. Kamara left for the NFL draft.
The tandem of Warrior, Buchanan and Kongbo is where this class left its mark.
Each had double-digit tackle totals, with Warrior and Buchanan both eclipsing 20. Buchanan added a pass deflection to his contributions.
Kongbo, the JUCO transfer, made the most of his 11 tackles by getting 3 tackles for loss and a sack. He also had 7 quarterback hurries.
All three of them could see their roles increase in the 2017 season.
Redshirts and defections
Tennessee handed out a handful of redshirts to the 2016 class — quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, offensive tackle Ryan Johnson, offensive lineman Devante Brooks and outside linebacker Ja’Quain Blakely.
Three others — defensive lineman Mykelle McDaniel, receiver Latrell Williams and offensive lineman Nathan Niehaus — were not given redshirts, according to Tennessee’s 2017 roster, despite not having played in the 2016 season.
Of that group, Guarantano may have the best shot of seeing serious playing time in 2017. He’s in the thick of the quarterback battle, along with Quinten Dormady, Sheriron Jones and true freshman Will McBride. One of them will replace NFL-bound starter Josh Dobbs.
Johnson, a 4-star recruit in 247Sports’ composite rankings, has a bit of an offensive-line logjam to overcome. One starter on last year’s line was a senior and must be replaced.
The Vols also lost one player from the 2016 class. Running back Jeremy Lewis had 6 carries for 34 yards. Lewis announced he was leaving the program in November.
Members of Tennessee’s 2016 recruiting class mostly served as special teams pieces, which could continue for the most part in 2017.
While there are a few starters to replace, including Dobbs, Cam Sutton, Derek Barnett, Josh Malone and Kamara, the Vols were a junior-heavy team last season. That doesn’t leave a lot of starting jobs up for grabs.
Guarantano has a real chance to start at quarterback, which would be a huge boost to the 2016 class. Fils-aime will also have his chance to get snaps with Kamara gone. Byrd is sure to get a chance to help replace the catches lost by Malone’s departure.
On defense, Kongbo is sure to get first dibs to start at defensive tackle, while Sutton’s corner spot is Buchanan’s to lose. But outside of that, there isn’t a lot of extra space for defensive players to fill. Warrior, for example, remains behind the same player on the depth chart as last season, safety Micah Abernathy.