The calm of the dead period has been a welcome change for Tennessee recruiting considering the Vols had been on the skids for the past few weeks.
After three de-commitments from the 2016 class, the Vols have 15 commits and rank only 21st in the nation. That’s a far cry from coach Butch Jones’ previous two classes, in which the Vols ranked fourth in 2015 and seventh in 2014. A top-10 class is probably out of reach this season, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.
With fewer scholarships to offer, the Vols have had to be choosy. That’s the exact opposite of how Jones assembled Tennessee’s last two classes, which relied on early offers and early commitments. The Vols figure to sign 22-24 prospects in the 2016 class. If they can close on some of the big names still left on their board, this signing class will be remembered for the finish and not earlier shortcomings.
Here are the five biggest battles for Tennessee recruiting:
1. Derrick Brown, 5-star DT, 6-foot-4, 318 pounds (Lanier High School, Buford, Ga.)
Schools to beat: Alabama, Auburn, UGA and Mississippi State
This will be a challenge for Tennessee. Brown has shown strong recent interest in Alabama following his official visit there. However, UGA is thought to be in the lead. The Vols seem to be trailing but they will get the final say in his recruitment with a Jan. 29 official visit, just before National Signing Day. Brown is the No. 3 defensive tackle in the nation and No. 1 prospect in Georgia.
2. Marquez Callaway, 4-star ATH, 6-2, 175 pounds (Warner Robins High School, Ga.)
Schools to beat: UGA, Notre Dame and South Carolina
Most analysts think Callaway has been leaning toward the Vols for weeks. However, the cornerback/receiver from Warner Robins (Ga.) High School is also still considering UGA, Notre Dame and South Carolina among others. Callaway is the No. 7 athlete prospect in the nation and the No. 12 prospect in Georgia.
3. Mecole Hardman Jr., 5-star ATH, 5-10, 175 pounds (Elbert County High School, Elberton, Ga.)
Schools to beat: Alabama and UGA
Again, this will be a tough prospect for the Vols to secure with UGA surging after the recent hire of Kirby Smart as its head coach. Hardman Jr., also has strong ties to Alabama via defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who recruited Hardman while coaching for the Bulldogs. Tennessee’s best hope, like Brown, is that final official visit from Hardman Jr. on Jan. 29. Hardman Jr. is the No. 1 athlete prospect in the nation and No. 2 prospect in Georgia.
4. DE Jonathan Kongbo, 4-star DE, 6-5 ½, 264 pounds (Arizona Western Junior College, Yuma, Ariz.)
Schools to beat: Oregon, Washington, Alabama
Tennessee secured a commitment from Kongbo in November. Since then, his recruitment has heated up. The No. 1 junior college defensive end prospect in the nation has since shown interest in nearby Washington and Oregon. He also scheduled an official visit to Alabama. Kongbo is still committed to Tennessee, but it doesn’t really feel like it. There’s still work to be done to secure his signature on National Signing Day.
5. Jaleel Laguins, 4-star ILB, 6-2, 216 pounds (Oconee High School, Watkinsville, Ga.)
Schools to beat: UGA, Oklahoma and LSU
Laguins has been committed to UGA since August but recently agreed to take an official visit to Tennessee on Jan. 29. Laguins has also taken official visits to Oklahoma and LSU. That official visit will be paramount for the Vols. Laguins is rated the No. 10 linebacker in the nation and the No. 19 prospect in Georgia.
The Vols are certainly in the running for receiver Velus Jones from Saraland (Ala.) High School. Oklahoma is also in the mix for the 5-11, 180-pounder.
Tennessee is also battling for receiver Donnie Corley from Martin Luther King High School (Wyandotte, Mich.). The 6-2 ½, 182-pound wideout has been tough to read as he has repeatedly postponed announcing his decision.
The Vols won’t give up on safety Nigel Warrior from Peachtree Ridge High School (Suwanee, Ga.). However that seems like a longshot, even though the 5-11, 188-pound prospect’s father, Dale Carter, starred at Tennessee. Still, Warrior plans on visiting on Jan. 29 so the Vols at least have a chance.
Offensive tackle Landon Dickerson from South Caldwell High School (Hudson, N.C.) is still thinking about the Vols, but there’s a ton of competition for the 6-5, 293-pound lineman. Florida has made a recent push.