KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee is looking to recapture its glory from the 1990s. Join us daily at SEC Country for the latest recruiting news and notes on the next crop of Volunteers.
Rocky Top will be bustling this weekend.
In what has shaped up to be Tennessee recruiting’s most important remaining weekend on the calendar before National Signing Day on Feb. 1, the Vols play host to a large group of official visitors — including a number of marquee commits and several top defensive linemen.
Here’s what you need to know.
*** UNCOMMITTED TARGETS ***
* 4-star defensive end LaBryan Ray (James Clemons, Ala.)
National ranking: No. 42 nationally, No. 2 defensive end
Also considering: Alabama, Florida
What to watch: While the Crimson Tide are considered the heavy favorites for Ray, the Vols hope the lineman’s relationship with Walt Wells and a great official visit can stem the tide and put Tennessee in the driver’s seat. Doubtful, but we’ll see.
* 4-star defensive tackle Elijah Conliffe (Hampton, Va.)
National ranking: No. 305 nationally, No. 16 defensive tackle
Also considering: Alabama, Penn State, Florida
What to watch: The Tide have essentially run out of room for Conliffe, formally an Alabama lean. Florida is trying to get in the mix late, but Tennessee has quietly remained in the picture all fall. A good visit could lock down the talented interior rusher.
* 4-star tailback Travis Etienne (Jennings, La.)
National ranking: No. 223 nationally, No. 18 running back
Also considering: Texas A&M, LSU, Clemson
What to watch: Etienne recently told SEC Country that the Aggies were his leader, but the tailback also added that his recruitment was open. This weekend marks his first visit to Knoxville. The Vols have a lot of ground to makeup on both A&M and LSU here. Clemson is suddenly in the picture, too.
* 3-star defensive end Ryan Thaxton (St. Stephens, Va.)
National ranking: No. 825 nationally, No. 38 defensive tackle
Also considering: Ole Miss, Rutgers, N.C. State
What to watch: Tennessee offered this former Virginia commit over the summer, but contact was limited for much of the fall. With spots tight, Thaxton is likely a backup option behind Ray, Conliffe and even Aaron Sterling (Tucker, Ga.). He won’t commit until taking other visits, so the Vols have time here.
* 3-star receiver JaVonta Payton (Hillsboro, Tenn.)
National ranking: No. 555 nationally, No. 83 defensive tackle
Also considering: Kentucky, Middle Tennessee State, Purdue, Ole Miss
What to watch: Payton was a Tennessee target for months, but then the Vols backed off when it didn’t appear like adding another wideout to the class was possible. But with Josh Malone off to the NFL Draft, Tennessee suddenly has a need there. If Payton becomes a true take, he’ll end up in the class.
* 3-star receiver Josh Palmer (St. Thomas Aquinas, Fla.)
National ranking: No. 811 nationally, No. 120 receiver
Also considering: Syracuse
What to watch: Palmer is an Orange commit. He’s making his first trip to Tennessee since receiving an offer. He’s teammates with Vols defensive tackle commit Kivon Bennett, who will also officially visit this weekend.
*** COMMITS ***
In addition to the six Tennessee targets, eight Vols commits will also take their official visit to Knoxville this weekend. The group is headlined by 4-stars Maleik Gray, Ty Chandler and Eric Crosby, but also includes 3-star tailback commit Trey Coleman, 3-star corner Terrell Bailey, 3-star receiver Jordan Murphy and 3-star safety Theo Jackson.
The Vols hope to seal the deal with Gray and Bailey, two commits who continue to hear from other schools. Gray, a safety from LaVergne, is scheduled to take an OV to Florida State next weekend. Gray’s best friend and high school teammate Princeton Fant, a Tennessee receiver commit, is tagging along unofficially this weekend. Fant told SEC Country he’s coming to hang with Gray and recruit Ray and Conliffe. The 3-star wideout will take his official visit with his mom on Jan. 27.
Meanwhile, Bailey recently received an offer from Notre Dame and plans to visit the final weekend in January. Houston and the Fighting Irish are making a late surge for the Louisiana corner.
Finally, Chandler, a U.S. Army All-American, Crosby, Jackson and Murphy are all solid to Tennessee.
ICYMI: Coaches on the road
With the dead period ending at midnight Wednesday, Tennessee had coaches spread across the Southeast yesterday.
The Vols visited with Ray before his official visit this weekend, but they also saw commits in Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and North Carolina.
* CB Cheyenne Labruzza (Albany, La.)
* CB Terrell Bailey (John Ehret, La.)
* TE James Brown (Jones, Fla.)
* LB Will Ignont (Buckhord, Ala.)
* DE Marquez Bembry (Mount Vernon, Ga.)
* DE Matthew Butler (Garner, N.C.)
* LB Solon Page III (Kell, Ga.)
* LB Jaquan Henderson (Newton, Ga.)
* WR Jacquez Jones (Clearwater, Fla.)
Coach Butch Jones had in-home visits with the Peach State linebackers, seeing both Page and Henderson with assistant coach Tommy Thigpen.
— Jaquan Henderson#1 (@JaquanHenderso2) January 12, 2017
Henderson is a guy Tennessee is trying hard to keep committed, as the 3-star prospect has visited Nebraska and Michigan State and will take an official visit to North Carolina this weekend. The linebacker will take his official visit to Tennessee on Jan. 20.
Finally, receivers coach Zach Azzanni also saw wideout Jordan Pouncey on Thursday.
The Winter Park (Fla.) standout recently decommitted from Notre Dame, and Tennessee and Miami are considered the two schools at the top of Pouncey’s list.
— PounceyNumbaSeven™ (@_pouncey) January 13, 2017
The 3-star prospect will take an OV to Tennessee on the final weekend in January.
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