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VOL. 42 | NO. 52 | Friday, December 28, 2018

Vols’ Pruitt looks for leaders in recruiting class

By Rhiannon Potkey

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Aubrey Solomon, center, who two years ago was a five-star recruit from Georgia, added to Tennessee’s recruting haul by announcing he would transfer from Michigan. He will have two years of eligibility with the Vols, but it is not yet known whether he will be available next season.

-- Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire Via Ap Images

Jeremy Pruitt recruited with a purpose this year, selecting players with more knowledge of the environment and certainty of what Tennessee’s football program truly needed.

Instead of scrambling to sign recruits he didn’t know very well, Pruitt actually had time to get to know the players. Instead of juggling multiple roles on two staffs, Pruitt was able to devote all his energy to securing commitments in the stretch run.

The end result – after the early signing period concluded last Friday – is a 19-man class Pruitt feels confident can help the Vols in their quest to return to SEC contenders.

“When you’re looking for guys to help build your program, to me the first thing you’re looking for is good people. The guys that we signed, they have character, they have competitive toughness, they’re winners,” Pruitt says.

“Most of them were captains of their football team. They’re used to playing in December, which I think is important.”

Tennessee’s early signing class is ranked No. 13 in the country by 247Sports, and sixth among SEC programs. Rivals has the Vols at No. 12 nationally and fifth in the SEC.

The class is technically considered the second for Pruitt at Tennessee, but it’s really the first that’s all his own.

Last year, Pruitt was still serving as Alabama’s defensive coordinator while recruiting as Tennessee’s head coach. He was helping the Crimson Tide prepare for their College Football Playoff title run while putting together a staff to help convince recruits to come to UT.

Compounding the hectic transition was the change in the recruiting calendar, with the early signing period instituted for the first time. It meant Pruitt had only days to create a blueprint for how to make it work.

In comparison, this year’s class was scouted and recruited for months. The Tennessee coaches knew the kind of players they wanted and the positions they needed to address.

The primary focus of the early signing class was up front, with the Vols adding four offensive linemen, three defensive linemen and two tight ends with blocking skills.

The class is headlined by five-star offensive tackle Wanya Morris. The Georgia native is rated as the nation’s No. 13 overall prospect, according to the 247Sports composite rankings.

Tennessee signed 17 players on the opening day of the early period, and added four-star running back Eric Gray, a three-time Mr. Football winner out of Lausanne High in Memphis, on the second day.

But it was the final day that attracted the most attention as the Vols closed with a flourish.

Hours after defensive lineman Aubrey Solomon announced he was transferring to Tennessee, elite athlete Quavaris Crouch chose the Vols over Michigan and Clemson.

The four-star from North Carolina had initially planned to make his decision next month during the U.S. Army All-American game on NBC, but decided to announce early.

Crouch – “a guy that can help change the program,” Pruitt says – played running back in high school and was recruited as a linebacker.

Solomon is a former five-star recruit from Georgia who spent the last two seasons at Michigan. He appeared in 18 games for the Wolverines, totaling 24 tackles and two tackles for loss. Solomon was limited in game action this past season by injury. He would need a waiver to be eligible to play for the Vols in 2019.

“Aubrey is a guy that a lot of coaches on our staff knew when he was a young man in high school, and we all recruited him,” Pruitt points out.

“He can play all three downs. He’s a powerful man. He’s smart. He’s a good student. He has experience, having already played at the collegiate level. He is a great addition to our university and our football program.”

All 18 players in Tennessee’s early signing class were rated at least a three star from one of the major scouting services, with 11 earning four or more stars.

The Vols signed players from five states – Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Maryland and North Carolina. Georgia led the way with nine signees.

“Atlanta is not but three hours from us, and there’s five million people in the counties surrounding Atlanta, a lot of good football. Lots of people recruit there,” Pruitt says. “We have guys on our staff that have recruited that state before and are familiar with the South, and I hope we continue to have success there.”

The lone quarterback in the group was from Florida. Ocala’s Brian Maurer threw for more than 3,500 yards and 34 touchdowns as a senior.

“He’s a guy that can make all the throws, beat you with his feet, really good competitor,” Pruitt adds. “I told him, I said one of the things that kind of sold me about you was there’s two times on the tape that you threw an interception and you looked like a linebacker trying to get him on the ground.

“I think that is a testament to his competitive toughness.”

Even before the National Letters of Intent began rolling into the recruiting office, Tennessee received a key commitment.

Pruitt was able to retain strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald after new Maryland head coach Mike Locksley tried to convince Fitzgerald to join his staff.

Locksley is the one who recommended Fitzgerald when Pruitt got the job at Tennessee. Pruitt and Locksley worked together on Alabama’s staff.

“When he gave me Craig’s name, he told me, ‘When I get a head job, I am going to try and hire him from you one day.” Pruitt continues. “That’s what anyone good is going to do. Craig came in this morning and told me that he wants to finish what he started. We are excited to have him here.

“It was probably one of the top recruits that we got or at least to start the day.”

Tennessee’s staff put in long hours securing the new class. Coaches made a lot of road trips and ate a lot of home-cooked meals.

But Pruitt made sure to credit the current Vols for helping attract more talent to Rocky Top.

“The best recruiters that you have are our players, and our team did a fantastic job of selling our vision of where we’re headed,” Pruitt says. “I know this last week I think we had maybe 16 guys in on official visits. With our players in there recruiting the guys, there’s a lot of positive energy, and I can’t say enough about the guys on our football team and some of our seniors stuck around to help recruit also.”

Pruitt expects 12 of the signed recruits to arrive in January to get acclimated to UT, go through spring practice and try to compete for early playing time.

“What I think we are going to have is a lot of competition and lots of opportunity. Our players have done a fantastic job recruiting these guys because they want to play with good players,” Pruitt says. “The guys that we have coming in in this class realize that we have a lot of starters coming back but, they are embracing the opportunity to compete and to build something at Tennessee.”

Pruitt doesn’t encourage early enrollment when he recruits players. He leaves it up to the individual to make a decision that is best for him.

“I can tell you this, if I was in high school, I probably wouldn’t be an early enrollee, I loved being in high school, I wanted to play baseball in the spring,” Pruitt says. “There’re some guys that want to play basketball, some that want to run track, and some that want to go to prom. We had several young men that asked us if we wanted them to be early enrollees, and we told them it was completely up to them. We want them to be happy.”

The Vols have a few more spots to fill in this year’s class by the time the regular signing day arrives on Feb. 6. Pruitt wants another skill player on both offense and defense and some more big men up front.

Once they arrive in college, the number of stars by their names will no longer matter. Some players will live up to the hype, and some will never reach their supposed potential.

Some of the more unheralded players will become stars, and others may rarely see the field.

But they all start at the same place, and have a chance to chart their own path.

“We wouldn’t have recruited them if we didn’t think they could contribute early,” Pruitt acknowledges.

“I think lots of times we put unrealistic expectations on freshmen, so I think they control that, they’ll control how much they play. We’ll see.”

Tennessee's class of early signees

PLAYER RATING POS. HT. WT. Hometown/previous school
Ramel Keyton 4 star WR 6-foot-3 185 Marietta, Georgia / Marietta HS
Jackson Lowe 4 star TE 6-foot-5 242 Cartersville, Georgia / Cartersville HS
Sean Brown 3 star TE 6-foot-5 250 Rome, Georgia / Coosa HS
Tyus Fields 4 star DB 5-foot-10 190 Cornelius, North Carolina / Hough HS
Jaylen McCollough 4 star DB 6-foot-0 194 Powder Springs, Georgia / Hillgrove HS
Brian Maurer 4 star QB 6-foot-3 184 Ocala, Florida / West Port HS
Jerrod Means 3 star WR 6-foot-2 212 Hampton, Georgia / Lovejoy HS
Chris Akporoghene 4 star OL 6-foot-5 294 Seymour / IMG Academy
Melvin McBride 3 star OL 6-foot-2 300 Memphis / Whitehaven HS
Elijah Simmons 3 star DL 6-foot-2 344 Nashville / Pearl-Cohn HS
Aaron Beasley 3 star ATH 6-foot-1 220 Franklin, Georgia / Heard County HS
Wanya Morris 5 star OL 6-foot-6 311 Loganville, Georgia / Grayson HS
Warren Burrell 4 star DB 6-foot-0 170 Suwanee, Georgia / North Gwinnett HS
Jackson Lampley 4 star OL 6-foot-4 300 Nashville / Montgomery Bell Academy
Darel Middleton 3 star DL 6-foot-7 290 Oak Ridge / East Mississippi C.C.
Savion Williams 4 star DL 6-foot-4 315 Marlboro, Maryland / Lackawanna College
Roman Harrison 4 star LB 6-foot-2 241 Bainbridge, Georgia / Bainbridge HS
Eric Gray 4 star RB 5-foot-10 195 Memphis / Lausanne Collegiate School
Quavaris Crouch 4 star ATH 6-foot-2 230 Charlotte, North Carolina / Harding University

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