Vols head coach Jeremy Pruitt met with the media on Thursday afternoon to recap Tennessee’s first day of the early signing period and preview this Saturday’s game against No. 5 Texas A&M.
Pruitt discussed the 14 signees Tennessee had signed to that point, why Kaidon Salter was the quarterback of the class, the decision to take three running backs, getting Tiyon Evans back in the boat and the potential of the one-time transfer rule.
Here’s everything Pruitt had to say:
“If you look at today and Signing Day, we’re really excited. We have 14 guys that have officially assigned with us. Over the next several days, we expect to have several more. Just looking at these guys, I can’t say enough about our staff, our recruiting staff, our administration, academics – recruiting is a team effort so everybody in our program really works hard at recruiting. We do it every single day. Our players are probably the best recruiters that we have. Our players have done a tremendous job. It’s been very unusual obviously for the recruits in itself because they’ve not been able to come on campus. Building relationships, we started really hard with this class during the COVID-19 pandemic, when it first started. Lots of nights on Zoom calls, FaceTime and on the phone. With this particular class, it seems like to me I know them, I know their families, I know everybody involved around them probably better than any group I’ve been associated with in recruiting just because of the opportunity to do it because we weren’t at work specifically. It’s obviously a group that we’re proud of.
“Going down the list: Trinity Bell from Albertville, Alabama, is a guy that actually was in the seventh grade, my dad was the head football coach there and he called me and said, ‘listen, there’s a kid here in the seventh grade…I don’t know if he’s going to play in the NFL or play in the NBA, but he’s going to play somewhere. I want to bring him down and introduce him to you.’ So, he’s a young man that I’ve known probably since he was 12 or 13 years old – he was probably 6-4 then. But a guy that’s 6-7-plus, 265 pounds, plays tight end, can play multiple positions. Plays defensive end. A guy that’s just extremely athletic. I talked to him the other night after a basketball game and I said, ‘so how many points did you have?’ He said, ‘I had seven dunks.’ So, I said, ‘did you make any free throws?’ He said, ‘I was 5-for-5.’ So, a guy that’s really, really athletic.
“Miles Campbell from Douglasville, Georgia. Miles is 6-3, 235. A guy that will be midyear (enrollee). Very good student, athletic. If you watch his tape, he kind of plays all over the field. His junior year in high school he played a lot of quarterback. A guy that we’re going to focus at tight end. You watch his senior tape, he’s a guy that plays wide receiver, plays defensive line – so he kind of plays all over the field. A very instinctive guy.
“The next young man is Christian Charles from Gainesville, Georgia, 6-1, 185. A guy that played high school quarterback, but he’s going to play defensive back for us. A really good athlete. Didn’t get a chance to run track his junior year. He’s another guy that’s going to be a midyear; a really good student. A guy that is probably a 10.6, 10.7 (100-meter dash) guy that weighs 185 pounds. Very instinctive, tough. A guy that we’re excited to have in our program.
“Katron Evans out of Chesapeake, Virginia, through St. Frances Academy there in Baltimore (Md.), is another young man we’ve been recruiting a long time. I can remember Katron when he’d come in, he was in about the eighth for ninth grade, coming to a camp. He looked like he could play then for us. A guy that’s played in a really good program. He didn’t get a chance to play his senior year because they didn’t have football there at St. Frances, but a guy that can really play up and down the line of scrimmage. I went last year and watched him practice there in Baltimore and I came back and somebody asked me what that team looked like. I said, ‘they looked like the Pittsburgh Steelers.’ That’s the biggest bunch of high school kids I’ve ever seen and Katron’s a guy that really stuck out to me.
“The next young man is Tiyon Evans from Hartsville, South Carolina. He’s at Hutchinson Community College right now. A guy that we felt like is one of the premier running backs in the country. A guy that will be here midyear also. We’ll be excited to get him – feel like he’s a guy that can play all three downs. Has return ability. He’s probably 220 pounds. Really good hands out of the backfield, good blocker. A guy that can make you miss, can run with power, can run in between the tackles, can get out there on the perimeter. A guy that has lots of explosive ability.
“J’Marion Gooch from Gallatin, Tennessee, is a guy – he’s 6-6, 350 pounds – that really has only played two years of football. He came to our camp two years ago and had never participated in football. It was probably one of the first times after saying, ‘I’m going to start playing football.’ We had him in camp and he’s just a big massive and athletic guy, but a guy that’s very instinctive. He has tons of upside, plays with an edge, and someone that feels like could probably play up and down the line of scrimmage. We’re excited about him.
“This next young man, Amari McNeill from Suwanee, Georgia, and Peachtree Ridge High School is 6-4, 285. He’s a guy that we kind of got in with late in the process, and there’s lots of guys like that this year because of the lack of spring recruiting and summer camps. Kind of through diligence of working the phones, we came across this guy. He played left tackle on his high school, he also played defensive tackle. He’s a guy that we think is extremely athletic and can play on either side of the ball. We’re excited about having him in our program.
“Walker Merrill from Brentwood, Tennessee, is 6-1, 180 pounds. He’s a guy that we’ve been recruiting for a while since we’ve been here. Just a really good playmaker, very instinctive, plays with lots of toughness, had a great senior season, a guy that will be a mid-year enrollee, and guy that will be in our wide receiver rotation pretty quick.
“Julian Nixon from Roswell, Georgia. I’ve known Julian’s dad since we were in high school. We grew up in the same hometown and played college ball together. We used to drive back and forth to school together. Julian is a guy that is 6-4, he’s probably 235 or 240 pounds. He’s very athletic, has huge hands and just really tracks the ball extremely well. He’s a mismatch type of guy out there on the perimeter and one we’re excited about for sure.
“William Parker from Nashville, Tennessee, Pearl-Cohn High School. This says he’s 6-5 and 305, but the last time I saw William he was probably 6-5 and about 335. He’s a guy that to me is probably one of the better athletic big men in the entire country. He’s a guy that could really play on either side of the ball, but we’re going to play him on offense. He comes from a program at Pearl-Cohn where they’ve had a lot of success. We have one of his teammates here and he’s a guy that we’ve recruited for about three years now. Probably one of the first times I went on the road, I saw him sitting in there in the gym at Pearl-Cohn. I’m looking and there’s this kid that’s very large and has on boots and is dunking it any way he wants to. Then the coach there tells me that he’s just getting him out there for football. He’s a guy that excited about having for sure.
“Kaidon Salter from Cedar Hill, Texas, Kaidon is 6-1, 185. He’s a guy that we targeted very early in the process. He plays in one of the better leagues down there in Texas. He’s having a phenomenal year down there. He’s a winner, he’s a leader and he and Williams both will be here mid-year. A guy that we can’t wait to get here in the spring.
“Aaron Willis from Virginia. He played at Life Christian Academy this year, but played at St. Frances before. Obviously, St. Frances didn’t play, so he wanted to go somewhere where he could play and found a home. He’s a guy that, again, we’ve been recruiting for a long time, has a great motor and probably can play all the spots at inside linebacker for us. He’s a great special teams player; he’s all over the field, and a guy that we’re absolutely excited about.
“Cody Brown from Georgia. He’s a running back that’s 5-11, 225. Cody’s a guy that rushed for over 5,000 yards in his career, and that’s hard to do anywhere. He’s a guy that’s used to having the ball in his hand and runs behind his pads. He has really good vision, is a really good student, and is a guy that’s been committed to us for a long time, and we’re glad that we have him.
“Jaylen Wright from North Carolina. Jaylen is an athlete that we’ll probably play at running back and kick returner. He’s a guy that you want to get the ball to out in space. I think last winter, he ran the second-fastest 60-meter time in the country. He’s a guy that weighs 205 pounds and will probably weigh 215. He has really good speed and can assist us really early on in the return game.
“Then a placekicker, J.T. Carver from Martin, Tennessee. A guy that we targeted early expecting a transition, not knowing that guys could come back, just adding to our specialists. He’s a guy that we’re really excited about.
“Like I said, we have 14 guys that we have their scholarships in, and we expect several more over the next couple days. So, we’re really excited about this class to mix in with the last two classes that we’ve signed. These guys have been a big part of helping recruit these guys. They’ll continue to do that, and I’m excited about where we’re headed here.”
On how Tennessee has done in recruiting since its surge back in the spring:
“Well, the way recruiting goes, it’s not over until they sign. It’s kind of just the starting point. Recruiting is 365 days out of the year and that’s why you’ve got to recruit every single day. I feel like our staff really focused on it really hard coming out of that pandemic and we had a really good plan. One thing that has been tough for everybody is the evaluation process. You’ve got some states that are playing football, some that are not. There’s no summer camps. Just focusing on the guys that are going to be in your class, it’s very important to make sure that you know exactly what you’re getting.”
On how on-field results have affected the 2021 and 2022 recruiting classes:
“It’s really interesting. For most of these recruits, wherever they’re at, the circumstances for this year surrounding them, their high school teams – like I said, a lot of states have not played, some states have, some have played half a season, some have started and stopped and started back again – so, to me, I don’t think it’s had a whole lot of effect on it, just to be honest. I think the reality of it is in the circumstances that most high school recruits have been involved in, they understand that circumstances have been unusual for them.”
On the importance of landing running back Tiyon Evans:
“Well Tiyon is a pretty interesting guy. He’s never been on our campus, so that’s the way a lot of this has been in recruiting, unfortunately for a lot of these kids. Not just the guys we’ve recruited but other guys also. Again, this recruiting cycle has been unlike any I have ever been a part of before because of that. The lack of opportunities to build relationships personally – there’s nothing like sitting down, sitting in a room, for a young man to get to spend time with players on our campus, or academics, or the strength staff, or player development, the position coach, the coordinator – so, we’ve really had to work hard to do it through Zoom. It’s been unusual. I think Tiyon is a guy, again, like I said, I think he’s got a chance to be a dynamic player. We’re excited to have him.
“With our remaining spots, we’ll fill up pretty fast. I’m very confident of that, so we’ll just have to wait and see where we’re at come January.”
On what positions Tennessee still needs to address in this recruiting class:
“I think every position. If you see on the list here, there’s a couple running backs there, there’s a couple o-linemen there. As this whole thing goes you got to look and fit it together. The one thing that’s really changed the dynamic is the fact that other guys can come back this season not counting (toward the 85 scholarship limit). Having guys back – just for instance the d-line for us, there’s four senior d-linemen – if all four of those guys decided to come back it probably changes the room a little bit on how many guys you take, how many guys you sign. Again, it’s been a very unusual year.”
On the decision to add three running backs:
“Well to start with the running backs, you probably need six on your team. If you look at our roster right now, just based off our numbers, some of these freshmen we didn’t know exactly what position they were going to play when they got here. Just trying to figure it all out, you want to make sure that you have running backs. This is a physical league, if you run out of them, you’re in trouble. Another thing is they are usually the best athletes on their high school team. They usually touch the ball a whole lot and these guys have the ability to play a lot of spots, but that is one of the main reasons.”
On why Kaidon Salter was identified as the quarterback for this class:
“Kaidon Salter is a guy, who right before we got shut down, came on an unofficial visit. We got a chance to spend some time with him, just really liked his makeup, loved his family, loved his tape. A guy that is very athletic that we think has a lot of upside and a guy that we are really excited about.”
On how he believes incoming signees will transition to college after not playing their senior seasons:
“I do think that the guys who got to play probably are at a little bit of an advantage. Football is a developmental game so having an opportunity to participate in it is absolutely an advantage. I think some of the guys that didn’t play this past year, the training leading up to whenever they get here will be important to make sure that they are in shape. That is something that we have to be focused on and I know that these guys will.”
On how he believes the one-time transfer rule will impact recruiting:
“Well to me, just talking about grad-transfers first of all, every year there are several guys that are grad transfers that when they make that move, they usually have an impact on the team. You can look at it every year probably across our league that do impact the team. It is not a rule. But if it becomes a rule, I probably would be in favor of it. I’m thinking you have guys that have a chance to impact teams, but also the reason I like the rule is because if a guy makes a decision to go to a school and the circumstances change, if they were doing things like they are supposed to be doing academically, then they would have an opportunity to do that. I’m a little different because I was a transfer myself and still stay in contact with the school that I transferred from, my old coach. Circumstances are different for each individual person and I hate that we keep a young person, especially with the way times are with the circumstances over the last seven or eight months, that we keep them from trying to reach their dreams. Most of them, it’s just playing ball, but to me the most important thing is getting a degree.”
On Kaidon Salter’s ability to extend plays:
“Well to me, you always want an athletic quarterback. Growing up on the defensive side, a guy that can extend plays can present something in the run game from a quarterback’s perspective and creates another dynamic for the defensive team. It’s great that Kaidon has got a talented arm, but he’s also a really good athlete and you can watch it on his high school tape. He’s a guy that’s very creative.”
On recruiting three-star athlete Christian Charles:
“Just watching him run with the ball in his hand. We have had a history of recruiting quarterbacks. Guys that make a lot of plays and show their athleticism. We felt like that we had verified times, we had verified size, verified speed. He obviously is catching the ball at quarterback in the gun, so he has probably got good hands. Just watching him run with the ball to us there are three critical factors at defensive back: can you play man-to-man, tackle in space, and play the ball in the deep part of the field. Just looking at that we felt confident that he fit that criteria.”
On if he believes Kaidon Salter will compete for the quarterback job once he steps foot on campus:
“I expect all these guys to compete for playing time. That’s why we recruited him here. They will all have the same opportunity as everybody else. It’s a class that we’re excited about. We’re excited about adding to it. The guys on our team, they want the best players to come play with them. The best way to get better is to play against the players every single day. The better the competition the more you’re going to improve as a player. Our team believes in that. That’s why they’re so devoted to recruiting.”
On how many recruits will be early enrollees and how seniors returning next year will affect the scholarship numbers:
“There’s eight out of these fourteen that would be midyear. This senior class, the guys that come back, they do not count towards the 85 next year. So, not yet. It’s down the road and that has not been ruled on yet.”
On being able to develop Christian Charles in the secondary:
“One thing about Christian, when you talk to him it’s almost like he jumps through the phone. He’s got a contagious personality and a guy that I can see being a leader. He is excited about getting here. He is excited about playing the position. Talking to him reminds me a lot of Alontae (Taylor). Alontae was the same way going through the recruiting process. He is a guy that has size, speed and want to. He’s not played a lot of defensive back but when he had the ball in his hand in high school, he was dynamic. Most of the time, the guys that are used to having the ball in their hand, it tends to get in their hands on Saturdays. Hopefully he’ll bring that to the table.”