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Front Page - Friday, January 5, 2018

Vols' Pruitt makes most of early signing date

Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt could have done a lot worse during the Dec. 20-22 early signing period, the first-ever for high school recruits in college football.

It was a recruiting whirlwind for Pruitt, named UT’s coach Dec. 7 while still serving as Alabama’s defensive coordinator.

Pruitt had 10 days to salvage a signing class before the dead period for recruiting began Dec. 18 and managed to sign 14 players with three more on board as hard (verbal pledges) commitments for the Feb. 7 national signing date.

At least six of the players committed to UT after Pruitt’s hiring, including junior college tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson, junior college offensive tackle Jahmir Johnson, quarterback J.T. Shrout, offensive tackle Jerome Carvin and running back Jeremy Banks.

Tennessee had 18 recruits de-commit before the early signing date, several after Butch Jones was fired Nov. 12 and during the coaching search that resulted in the Dec. 1 firing of athletic director John Currie and the hiring of Phillip Fulmer as AD the same day.

Of those 18 de-commitments from UT, 12 signed early with Power 5 FBS programs. Of those 12 signees, five signed with SEC schools (two with Florida, one with Georgia, one with South Carolina and one with Alabama).

Shrout was a crucial signee for Tennessee with quarterback Adrian Martinez de-committing Dec. 13 – he signed with Nebraska – and Pruitt pulling the scholarship offer from quarterback Michael Penix, who signed with Indiana. Martinez and Penix were UT’s only quarterback commitments in the 2018 class.

Banks, of Cordova High near Memphis, is the only running back signed early, although running back Anthony Grant of Buford (Georgia) High is one of three “hard” commitments planning to sign in February. UT’s new running backs could get early playing time with leading rusher John Kelly opting to forgo his senior season and enter the 2018 NFL Draft.

After the Dec. 27 announcement of Johnson’s signing – he actually signed during the early period – UT’s 2018 class climbed to No. 22 nationally and No. 8 in the SEC, according to 247Sports Composite’s rankings.

Pruitt, who coached the Alabama defense in Monday’s College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson, still has plenty of needs to fill with the 2018 class.

What are the needs? How many more will UT sign? The Ledger posed those questions and others to Ryan Callahan, who covers Tennessee recruiting for 247Sports. Here’s what Callahan has to say (interview was before Johnson’s signing):

How many more does Tennessee plan to sign in February, eight to nine, or is that number fluid?

Callahan: “Yeah, it really is kind of a fluid thing. I would expect them to sign more than 20, and beyond that, we’ll just have to see. I don’t think with what the situation this staff inherited, numbers wise, I don’t think they’re likely to go beyond 25, so probably somewhere in the 21 to 25 range, just depending on who they can get.’’

Tennessee pulled offers from some commitments who didn’t fit with what Pruitt wanted. Is Pruitt looking for bigger, stronger recruits than the previous staff?

Callahan: “I think definitely on defense you’ve seen that quite a bit. In the front seven, I think, is the first thing that always comes to mind with (Pruitt) likely running a 3-4 defense, and on the defensive line you’ve seen that.

“They parted ways with Jamarcus Chapman, who was likely a 4-3 defensive end, or could have played defensive tackle in that system, and in a 3-4, it’s just not as much of a natural fit for him.

“So that’s one example, but at cornerback, they want taller, longer corners, at least 6-foot corners, and they had a couple of corners who were 5-10 or shorter that they parted ways with. You’ve seen it mostly on defense, but definitely at running back, too. They went after Jeremy Banks and signed him out of Cordova, a guy that’s about 6-2, 215, and Butch Jones’ staff had started to recruit him a little bit, but he wasn’t necessarily the typical type of back that his staff would have pursued.

“They are going after a little bit bigger running backs in a lot of cases, and definitely on defense, some bigger players in the front seven. I think as we continue to look ahead to 2019, too, you’ll see them recruit even some bigger linebackers. We’ve not seen that as much yet in this class, but definitely in the 2019 class we’re seeing them recruiting some bigger linebackers than Tennessee’s previous staff probably wouldn’t have gone after, so it has changed a lot on defense.’’

Do you think Pruitt is moving toward recruiting players for more of a pro-style offense?

Callahan: “I don’t know that you’ll see a lot of change about the profile on offense. I do think at running back is where you’ll see it mostly.

“On the offensive line, I think you might see the staff being a little more willing to kind of go after some road graders who can really help the run game. I don’t think you saw the previous staff go after as many of those types of guys. They tended to go for the more athletic types who could do a lot of different things, get out and block on the perimeter and do things like that.

“This staff will be willing to sign those 330-pound guards who can just mash people in the run game. Jerome Carvin is kind of a good fit. The previous staff was recruiting him too, but he’s their type of guy (for Pruitt). I think that’s the main thing.

“The quarterback, I think they’re going to be willing to go after pro-style and dual-threat guys. You’ve seen that at Alabama, obviously where Jeremy Pruitt’s just been the last two years. They’ve been willing to take guys who can run, and guys who are more pocket passers. So, I don’t think it will change much at a lot of positions.

“At tight end, maybe you want to get a little bit bigger there to help in the run game. It’s mainly going to be that, help in the run game, be more of a powerful, downhill run game than just overall changing the entire offense.’’

What do you think of Shrout, the quarterback signee?

Callahan: “I think under the circumstances, that was a nice pickup. He is a good fit for a pro-style type of system, but he is athletic enough to make some plays with his legs. He has some intriguing skills to work with. I think he’s got really sound mechanics and has good arm strength. The thing you look at, and you kind of scratch your head at, is his turnovers.

“He’s only been a starter for one year. He only started as a senior in high school, and he had 25 interceptions this year, so clearly, he needs to work on decision making and some things that naturally will improve with experience I think.

“He’s definitely a bit raw, definitely not a finished product in any way, shape or form, but I think he’s a guy that a lot of people are excited about, and he could end up being a bit of a steal in time. It will just depend on how they develop him here.

“He’s not a guy who’s likely to come in and start as a freshman, but in a couple of years if they develop him well, that could be one you look back at and say they really found kind of a hidden gem there late in the game after parting ways with one quarterback (Penix) and losing the other (Martinez).’’

What do you think of the job Pruitt did recruiting in the short period of time, getting players signed and getting others ready to sign in February?

Callahan: “I think they did a really nice job, actually, when you look at how many guys they parted ways with who weren’t fits for what they were doing, and then also you look at who they realistically could have gotten during that early signing period. They hit on a pretty good percentage of the guys that they really prioritized.

“They hosted a big group of visitors the final weekend before the early signing period and got a handful of those guys. So, to be able to do that in basically less than two weeks is really impressive, and not only that, but they started targeting early on some guys that they thought weren’t going to sign during the early signing period that would give them some time to develop some relationships and recruit guys for a couple of months before they sign.

“I think they do have a chance to sign several more in February that they’ll be pretty happy with. Yeah, they gave themselves a nice foundation in this early signing period, but they always knew they weren’t going to be anywhere close to finished, but to get a handful of those guys and fill some major needs and get a couple of big splashes in Jerome Carvin and Dominick Wood-Anderson in particular is pretty impressive.’’

What were the biggest needs Tennessee filled early and what are the needs moving forward in February?

Callahan: “Obviously, the quarterback, they took care of that. The previous staff had two quarterbacks in their class, but they don’t necessarily have to sign two if they don’t want two. They could be finished there, so getting that quarterback was a big deal.

“Tight end was the other one they really addressed. They had Jacob Warren, the local kid (from Farragut High) who’s a more athletic pass catcher that probably needs to add some weight, ideally, so they didn’t have an immediate impact guy (at tight end).

“To go out and get Dominick Wood-Anderson, a junior college guy who’s the No. 1 JUCO tight end in the country, that was a huge, huge pickup. I think he’ll come in and immediately be a playmaker on offense in addition to a pretty effective blocker in the run game. Those are the main two needs they’ve really filled so far.

“They’ve addressed some other needs with some of their other pickups, but they’re not finished at really any other position. They’re still working on the offensive line, looking for a couple more guys there.

“On defense, I think you’re going to see them recruit basically every position group going into February. You still would like at least one more defensive linemen, maybe a couple of linebackers, definitely at least two cornerbacks if not three, so they really need help all over the defense right now.

“On offense, they still need a couple of receivers as well to go along with offensive line help. They still have a lot of needs going into February, but they definitely took care of tight end and quarterback primarily during that early signing period.’’

What about the in-state signees? Can we expect to see any of them contribute as freshmen?

Callahan: “Under most circumstances, I would think Tanner Antonutti (Nashville Ensworth) is probably not a guy who’s likely to step in right away. He’s more of a developmental guy. He played tight end his junior year and his senior year shifted to the offensive line. He’s a tackle and a little bit lean still. Last time I talked with him he weighed in at around 273, so he’s going to need to add some weight.

“But under (Tennessee’s) circumstances, with their offensive line situation, he could end up getting at least in the mix for some early playing time if they really have some injury issues on the offensive line again next year.

“Jerome Carvin’s probably the one you’d look at that has a chance to help as a freshman. He probably needs to drop a few pounds, if anything, around 330 right now, but I think at guard he could help out early on. It depends on if they get some junior college help in February.

“If they don’t get some junior college guys, Carvin could be in the mix for some early playing time there. Definitely I think (wide receiver) Alontae Taylor is going to have a chance to at least compete for playing time. He’s not a guy who specialized at receiver in high school. He played a lot of quarterback at his school (Coffee County High), but he’s athletic enough and has a good enough work ethic and attitude about it that I think he’ll come in (and play), and the fact that he’s an early enrollee will really help him pick up that position and put himself in the mix for playing time.

“They obviously need playmakers there (wide receiver). They showed this year they’re not loaded at receiver in terms of numbers and just playmakers. They could use a guy like (Taylor) coming in and really helping from Day 1.

Who are three of top players signing early?

Callahan: “I would definitely point to Dominick Wood-Anderson as probably the top junior college guy they got.

“On offense, Alontae Taylor stands out as well, and I would say Greg Emerson, the defensive lineman from West Tennessee (North Side High in Jackson). He was for a long time the No. 2 player in the state.

“We’ll see where he ends up in the final rankings, but he missed his whole senior season with a leg and ankle injury, but he’s a very good player when healthy. He thinks he’ll be back in the spring.

“That was a big pickup for Tennessee at the time they got him back in the summer. He was pretty loyal to them and never really looked around down the stretch.

“That’s one who will be big and I think he’s a good fit for what Tennessee does defensively, too. He’ll probably slide in as a defensive end in the 3-4, so a nice pick up there and definitely the headliner of that defense so far, but we’ll see what they add in February.’’

How will Pruitt’s continued work at Alabama affect what he needed to do with recruiting at Tennessee?

Callahan: “I think it will actually work out pretty seamlessly. I would imagine he’s still taking some time to message recruits and things like that during this period while he’s working with Alabama, so it’s not as if he’s completely focused on Alabama. He can still send some text messages and Twitter messages and makes some phone calls and things like that when he gets a chance.

“On top of that, they’re in the middle of a dead period right now and it lasts through January 11, so coaches can’t be on the road right now.

“It’s actually not a bad time for all this to be happening. Sure, in some ways, maybe not ideal, but the fact that you get to sell Jeremy Pruitt a little bit more on TV during the College Football Playoff, and he can point to recruits and say, ‘I’ll be coaching for a national championship tonight. You should watch Alabama play.’

“And people will be talking about Tennessee of course when they show (Pruitt) on TV during those games, so I think all that helps out a little bit, and the fact that he’s away during the dead period doesn’t hurt really that much.

“The biggest thing is just making sure he’s ready to hit the ground running once he gets back from the College Football Playoff and that he gets a full staff (at Tennessee) as quickly as possible so that when the dead period ends and they go back on the road January 12, everyone’s ready to go.’’

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.