KNOXVILLE — Tennessee is chock-full of talented high school prospects this year.
Some say it’s the state’s best compilation of talent ever.
If highly-touted offensive tackle Trey Smith (University School of Jackson) can become a 247Sports Composite 5-star recruit sometime over the next six months, it would mark the first time in history Tennessee produced a trio of 5-star gems (Smith, receiver Tee Higgins (Oak Ridge) and athlete Jacoby Stevens (Oakland) in the same class.
The issue is that the Volunteers haven’t done a good job of keep in-state talent at home this cycle. Higgins and Stevens are headed elsewhere, as is 4-star tailback Cordarrian Richardson and 4-star wideout Amari Rodgers — both Clemson commits. LaVergne safety Maleik Gray is currently Tennessee’s lone Top 10 in-state commit.
But that trend could change dramatically in 2018.
The Volunteer State’s crop of junior prospects is special, too, and the class could erase the recent narrative that Tennessee can’t protect its borders after missing out on much of the state’s potentially historic 2017 group.
On Thursday, ESPN released its Top 300 junior prospects and a dozen kids from Tennessee earned a spot, including Vols commits Cade Mays, a 5-star offensive tackle from Knoxville Catholic High, and athlete Alontae Taylor, a 4-star standout at Coffee County Central. Six in-state prospects are ranked among the Top 100. The Nashville area is now a gold-mine for D1 recruits, with Brentwood Academy — UT star Derek Barnett’s high school — housing at least four top Tennessee targets. The state’s 2018 group is loaded with defensive linemen — Greg Emerson, a 4-star defensive end from North Side, D’Andre Litaker, a 4-star defensive tackle from Riverdale, and Brant Lawless, a 4-star defensive tackle from Nashville Christian School — all considered UT leans.
With Mays and Taylor already in the fold — two great players and great recruiters — the Volunteers are positioned to protect their borders next cycle.
Now they need to win, though.
Tennessee’s 2016 season will go a long way in not only reshaping its current class (in-state studs like Smith and tailback Ty Chandler are solid bets to eventually commit to UT) but building a foundation for the future. Coach Butch Jones resurrected the program on the backs of in-state kids like Barnett, Jalen Hurd, Todd Jelly Jr. and others.
The next generation of Tennessee kids needs to see if the Vols are truly “back.” They need to see them win big again.
If Tennessee fulfills its expectations this fall, Jones won’t have a problem with the state’s best players opting for a different shade of orange anymore.
All rankings are provided by the 247Sports composite unless otherwise noted.
Jesse Simonton covers Tennessee football and recruiting for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and SECCountry.com