On Sunday, Tennessee’s 2021 recruiting class got a gigantic boost when five-star weak-side defensive end Dylan Brooks announced his commitment to the Vols. Brooks, who’s rated as the No. 1 prospect in the state of Alabama per the 247Sports Composite rankings, chose Tennessee over his other top teams of Alabama, Auburn, and LSU. He also holds offers from other top programs around the country such as Oklahoma, Georgia, Florida, USC, Texas, and Oregon among others.
Brooks’ commitment sent shock waves throughout the recruiting world, and Tennessee’s recruiting momentum continued on Monday when four-star defensive back Kamar Wilcoxson also committed to the Vols.
As for Brooks, his upside seems sky-high, and he’s only just beginning to tap into it.
Larry Strain has been the head coach of Handley High School since 2015. He’s known Brooks since the talented defender was in middle school, and even then Strain knew that Brooks was going to develop into someone who could play at the FBS level.
“I brought him in as either an eighth grader or a seventh grader, and I told the coaches then that ‘here’s a D1 kid you better start recruiting right now’ because it was obvious when he was in the seventh and eighth grade,” Strain told me in a recent interview. “He was already so much taller than everybody. He was coordinated, athletic, and he could run even as a seventh grader. It was obvious at an early age that Dylan had the potential to play at a D1 level school.”
Scouts would be hard-pressed to find a more naturally gifted pass rusher in the 2021 class than Brooks. At 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, he has a huge frame, long arms, and can move very quickly.
On top of that, Brooks is still relatively young, meaning he’s still not anywhere close to reaching his true potential.
“Dylan is obviously a fine young man. He’s really still just a young kid,” Strain explained. “He’s 16 years old. He won’t be 17 till the end of the summer. Somebody who’s already 6-5 and as athletic as he is, it’s pretty amazing for him to be that young of a kid.
“But he’s a great kid and comes from a good family and home life. He’s got a lot of upside to him.”
As a junior at Handley, Brooks totaled 65 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, and seven sacks. Over the last two seasons of high school, Brooks has accumulated 120 total tackles, 33 TFLs, and 16 sacks.
He hasn’t just been a force on defense, though. Thanks to his athleticism and overall ability, Strain has even used him on offense as a pass catcher and even out of the backfield as a running back.
“When you got somebody who’s that big at 6-5 and that can move as well as he does, he’s even played in the backfield for us and run the ball for us,” Strain said. “It’s just so obvious, he’s such a natural. He’s ahead of the other kids he’s playing. It’s obvious he’s on a different level than what everybody else is.
“One coach was talking about me, saying I was crazy for playing him on offense because I played him at tight end. Then the coach told me he studied his film, and he understood why I played him on offense. He can just do whatever he wants to.”
Though he’s certainly effective on offense for Handley, defense is where Brooks will make a name for himself. He’s rated as one of the top defensive ends in the 2021 class, and for good reason. Not only is Brooks athletic and big, but he has a dangerous initial burst off the snap that makes him nearly impossible to guard.
“That first step, that’s the key to the whole thing,” Strain stated. “I think what most schools are recruiting him as is a third down rush guy. He’s a pass rusher. He’s so quick off his take-off. He’s so flexible and can bend so well and moves his feet so well and controls his body.
“For somebody that size, that’s what the whole key is, the reason why he’s so highly sought-after.”
That athleticism and speed was never more apparent than during the fall jamboree when Handley took on LaFayette last year.
“In the fall jamboree, he makes a play against LaFayette, and they’re a real athletic football team we’re playing,” Strain explained. “It’s a rush down, so Dylan is rushing the quarterback. Their quarterback is extremely athletic. The quarterback pulls the ball down and is gonna run the ball off the right tackle, right where Dylan had just came from. Dylan is already three or four yards deeper than the quarterback after he runs.
“Dylan plants his toe in the ground, comes straight back to the line of scrimmage, and catches him before he gets in the hole and just manhandles him. That’s just a play that not many people can make.”
One of the big reasons Tennessee won out and got Brooks’ commitment was his relationship with UT’s coaches. Not only are the Vols’ coaches adept at forming relationships with recruits, but a large portion of Tennessee’s coaching staff is either from Alabama or has coached in the state, giving them a strong natural connection with Brooks and other Alabama prospects.
Head coach Jeremy Pruitt, defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley, offensive line coach Will Friend, wide receivers coach Tee Martin, and inside linebackers coach Brian Niedermeyer have all either played, coached, or grew up in the state of Alabama.
Because of that, Strain says he has a great deal of familiarity with Tennessee’s coaching staff.
“I know the whole staff pretty much at Tennessee,” Strain said. “All those coaches up there are from the state of Alabama. A lot of them were high school coaches. A matter of fact, Coach Ansley, he played at a school that we play every year. He also played at Troy, and one of my assistant coaches played at Troy. So we had that connection with him and Coach Pruitt and several coaches on staff. It wasn’t like we were talking to somebody we didn’t know very well.”
Tennessee’s coaches put a big emphasis on their own evaluations of recruits, but getting highly-rated prospects has been proven to be beneficial to a team’s chances of competing for titles. Finding and developing hidden talent is good, but a program needs four-and-five-star recruits on a consistent basis to reach an elite level. UT’s coaches have done that more and more over the last couple recruiting cycles, and Brooks is helping them do that again in the 2021 class.
Finding a talented player on the field is one thing, but finding a prospect who has a good head on his shoulders is just as important. With Brooks, Tennessee looks like they have the best of both worlds.
“Dylan is really humble. You’d think somebody who’s getting all this attention would let it go to his head. But Dylan is really a humble kid,” Strain said. “He’s really very polite and well-spoken. I don’t feel like when he walks in the locker room with us that he thinks he’s any more special than anybody else. He’s just a fun kid to be around, and I’m excited for him.”
Brooks has already caught a ton of attention and is considered one of the top recruits in the 2021 cycle. But Strain believes the young five-star still hasn’t realized how good he can be, and he thinks Vol fans will be happy with what they see from Brooks in college.
“I think he’s got a really high ceiling, I really do. I don’t really think Dylan understands how good he really could be. I think that’s a reason why he’s such a hot recruit.”