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Pruitt’s Staff Needs Better Luck, Development of JUCO Players

Photo credit: Will Boling/RTI

One of the many things that stand out about Butch Jones’ tenure at Tennessee is his luck (or lack thereof) with junior college players. Jones and his staff were able to land some highly-rated JUCO recruits, but only a very small percentage of them lived up to their billing or were utilized correctly.

But if Jeremy Pruitt and his coaching staff want to have success at Tennessee, especially in their first couple seasons, they need to have better luck with JUCO players than Jones and his staff did.

Pruitt will have to rely on contributions from several JUCO players in both the 2018 and 2019 seasons as the Vols look for some quick fixes for some holes on their roster. Tennessee already has signatures from a couple junior college players in the 2018 recruiting class, and they’re likely to pick up another one or two here in the coming weeks.

The Vols will need to develop those junior college players and have better luck with them than Jones did if they want success this season and next.

During his time at Tennessee, Jones brought in 12 JUCO players from 2013 recruiting cycle to the 2016 recruiting cycle. Only one of those 12 players ended up being drafted into the NFL (3 are still on the 2017 roster), and even that one player, Alvin Kamara, has some negativity attached to his time at Tennessee because of Jones and his staff’s inability to use his skill set properly and effectively.

In the 2013 recruiting class, Tennessee brought in Riyahd Jones at cornerback and Woody Quinn at tight end. Neither of those two players did much while with the Vols. Jones played in a small handful of games, and Quinn was more well-known as being a high school volleyball star rather than anything he did with Tennessee.

The 2014 cycle saw Jones and his staff pull in Von Pearson at receiver, Dontavius Blair at offensive tackle, Chris Weatherd at linebacker, and Owen Williams at defensive tackle. Pearson was the highest-rated of the four and was a four-star prospect according to 247Sports. He had a lot of promise, but injury and a suspension for a rape allegation (which he was never charged for) limited his production to 76 receptions for 802 yards and eight touchdowns in his two seasons with Tennessee.

Blair was another four-star and was considered one of the top JUCO players and top JUCO offensive tackles in the 2014 cycle, but he might arguably be the biggest “bust” of the Butch Jones era at Tennessee. Blair redshirted his first year with the Vols and looked less than capable in 2015 when he played.

Weatherd never quite fulfilled expectations considering his four-star talent, but he found a role as a pass rushing specialist in Tennessee’s defense. Williams was by far the lowest-rated of the four JUCO players in the 2014 class, but he proved to have the most impact and be the most consistent of the four players. He started 12 of Tennessee’s 13 games in 2015 in his second season and finished his Vol career with 56 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and 3 sacks.

Jones and company added borderline five-star JUCO running back Alvin Kamara and four-star cornerback Justin Martin in the 2015 class. Kamara had tremendous upside and flashed some of that when he was allowed. Kamara broke Tennessee’s single game record for most all-purpose yards when he racked up 312 yards against Texas A&M in 2016. But Kamara wasn’t given the ball enough to replicate that type of performance on a weekly basis, and often he was overshadowed greatly by Jalen Hurd in touches. Kamara finished his Tennessee career with 1,977 yards from scrimmage and 24 total touchdowns (16 rush, 7 receiving, 1 punt return) in 24 games with the Vols. He averaged seven yards per touch on offense but only touched the ball 284 times in his two seasons.

Martin, like Kamara, had a lot of upside. But unlike Kamara, he never really flashed that potential. Martin largely underwhelmed in his three seasons with Tennessee, and it speaks to Jones and his staff’s coaching ability (or, once again, their lack thereof) that Martin’s best season was his first and he only performed worse with each passing year.

Jonathan Kongbo, Alexis Johnson, Jeff George, and D.J. Henderson were all added in the 2016 recruiting class. All but George are still on Tennessee’s roster, but none of those four have really stood out while with the Vols.

Kongbo was considered a massive get in recruiting for Jones, but he’s yet to live up to his rating, which was nearly a five-star ranking. Konbgo had an eventful and dramatic first season that saw him move from end to tackle and allegedly almost quit the team. His second season this year was underwhelming, but it appears he may be switching positions this offseason to fit into Pruitt’s 3-4 defensive scheme.

Johnson redshirted in 2016 and played a backup role this year with Tennessee. George caught just one pass for 20 yards in his first year and finished his last season with Tennessee this year with nine catches for 180 yards and touchdown. His touchdown came against Indiana State, and he caught a 60-yard pass against LSU and the infamous Hail Mary against Kentucky that somehow ended up three yards short of the end zone. Henderson has done little more than contribute on special teams.

Tennessee currently has two junior college players signed in their 2018 class right now. Four-star tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson and three-star defensive end Jordan Allen signed with the Vols during the early signing period. The Vols are also in on three-star offensive tackle Jahmir Johnson and a few other JUCO players in this class.

If Pruitt and his staff want to have more success than Jones and his various staffs did at Tennessee, one of the things they’ll need to do better is develop JUCO talent better. And that starts immediately with the junior college players the Vols are bringing in this season.

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