National Signing Day, 2017 edition, is Wednesday and Tennessee is hoping to finish off a top-15 caliber class that will likely finish with over 25 players.
It’s certainly a big day for Butch Jones and the Tennessee program.
With a handful of star players moving on to the professional ranks, many of whom were the ones that helped Jones and the Vols head in the right direction in recent years, the 2017 class is considered the one that needs to replenish the depth and keep the program going in the right direction, if all goes well. But it’s been an up-and-down year on the recruiting trail for Tennessee, leaving the Vols with some very impressive pieces, but some big questions heading into Wednesday.
Here are the things to know and the stories to follow as NSD arrives this year:
When: Tennessee’s live coverage of the event on UTSports.com begins at 7:00 am ET and Jones will address the media at 3:00 pm ET. In most cases, all, if not a vast majority of the Letters of Intent will be in by mid-afternoon. There are times when the drama can extend late into the afternoon and sometimes even past NSD. This class is expected to be on the books fairly early on Wednesday.
Already arrived: Tennessee brought in five mid-year enrollees this class – offensive lineman Trey Smith, defensive end Deandre Johnson, quarterback Will McBride, linebacker Shanon Reid and offensive lineman Riley Locklear.
Those five are done deals. They’re in Knoxville, enrolled in classes and working out with the team. Smith, rated as the top player in the nation by ESPN, is the headliner of that group after he picked the Vols over Alabama, Ohio State and dozens of other offers during a nationally-televised announcement in December.
In the fold: Tennessee, as of Tuesday morning, has 23 other verbal commitments: RB Ty Chandler, DT Eric Crosby, S Maleik Gray, LB Will Ignont, WR Jordan Murphy, CB Cheyenne Labruzza, DL Matthew Butler, DE/TE LaTrell Bumphus, DL Kivon Bennett, CB Terrell Bailey, ATH Marquez Bembry, S Theo Jackson, OLB Solon Page III, OL K’Rojhn Calbert, RB Trey Coleman, K Brent Cimaglia, WR Josh Palmer, DE Ryan Thaxton, WR Princeton Fant, WR Jacquez Jones, CB Shawn Shamburger, RB Timothy Jordan, TE James Brown
Flip watch: All 23 commitments are generally expected to sign with Tennessee, though a few have taken visits to other places recently. Jordan Murphy visited Ole Miss over the weekend, but said multiple times on Twitter that he’s remains committed to Tennessee. Receiver Jacquez Jones visited Central Florida last weekend as well.
Still on the board: There are just a few players currently not committed to Tennessee to keep an eye on Wednesday. The biggest is defensive end LaBryan Ray, a 6-foot-4, 260-pound defensive end rated as a five-star prospect and the No. 15 overall player in the nation by 247Sports. Long thought to be an Alabama lean, Ray is also considering Tennessee and Florida. It would be a mild upset for the Vols to beat the Tide here, but it’s worth keeping an eye on.
Receiver Jordan Pouncey visited last weekend and remains a name in play for the Vols. Does Tennessee have room for a fifth receiver in this class or is he more of a fall-back option if something else happens? Defensive end Aaron Sterling, receiver Javonta Payton and running back Octavius Matthew are other names that have been linked to Tennessee in the past few days. Again, space is a huge question. Tennessee would find a way to get Ray in the class, but outside of that, it’s tough to say.
Numbers game: How many total players will Tennessee take? That’s probably the top question asked every year, and there’s never a completely clear answer to it. Jones gets creative with the numbers, utilizing blueshirts, grayshirts, back-counting and any other tactic he can to cram as many players into a given class. That’s why it’s tough to pin an exact number on this, or any, class at Tennessee. Around 27-29 is a decent guess, but it’s tough to say for sure.
Rankings: As of Tuesday morning, this is what the national rankings look like for Tennessee (SEC in parenthesis):
ESPN: 10 (6)
Scout: 11 (6)
Rivals: 11 (5)
247Sports: 11 (5)
247 Composite: 14 (5)
Keep in mind, Tennessee’s quantity of current commitments (28) is tied for the most in the nation as of Tuesday. That means, unless Tennessee makes a significant addition, the Vols are more likely to fall in the rankings on Wednesday than rise. UT’s average player rating, according to the 247Sports Composite, is .8714, which would be the lowest ranking for UT since Jones’ first class in 2013.
The ones that got away: One storyline on Wednesday will be about the ones who aren’t signing withTennessee. While the Vols certainly landed some quality players, the pain of missing out on local, highly-rated receivers Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers to Clemson will be present for UT fans.
Tennessee also held a commitment from five-star quarterback Hunter Johnson at one point in this cycle, but he also ultimately ended up at Clemson. Tennessee will likely end up signing just three of the top 10 players (247 rankings) from the state of Tennessee, and 13 total players de-committed from Tennessee at some point in this recruiting cycle. Some were likely pushed away by UT or more mutual decisions, but that’s still a high number.
Final takeaways: In a sense, this is not the class that many UT fans hoped for and expected. In an ideal world, the Vols would be coming off a stronger 2016 season and heading towards another top-5 or top-10 recruiting class.
In a year that the talent was arguably as high as it’s ever been in the state, Tennessee failed to take complete advantage of that.
But there are certainly reasons for optimism as well. Signing the top player, by any ranking in any class, is always a huge accomplishment. Tennessee landed a top-five running back in Ty Chandler, a lot of help on the defensive line and several pieces that can help early in the secondary. Rankings can be a good predictor of championship-quality teams, but they’re also not the final word.
The Vols have several players – such as Jordan Murphy, Matthew Butler and Solon Page III – who aren’t rated as elite players, but who put together extremely productive senior seasons and could easily end up being big-time contributors at Tennessee. Time is the only way to truly judge a class. The clock starts ticking on Wednesday.