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VOL. 40 | NO. 8 | Friday, February 19, 2016

Callahan breaks down UT’s ‘pretty impressive’ recruiting class

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Kongbo

Tennessee football coach Butch Jones keeps his pulse on recruiting year-around, along with his SEC counterparts and other FBS coaches.

Chasing recruits is an endless cycle, the lifeblood of championship football teams.

Coaches aren’t the only ones spending countless hours throughout the year concerned with college football recruiting.

Rabid fans are kept up to date with minute-by-minute reports from recruiting services and media outlets, which compete to get the news first on social media before putting stories on websites and, perhaps later, in print.

There is little time off, even with the Feb. 3 National Signing Day in the mirror. There are junior days for football recruits, commitments for the 2017 class to track and rising stars of future classes to contact.

Nobody knows the process better than Ryan Callahan, who has covered Tennessee football and recruiting for GoVols247 since it was launched Dec. 30, 2010. Part of the 247Sports Network, GoVols247 also is a partner of the Knoxville News Sentinel and one of at least three outlets which have a specific focus on UT football recruiting.

Callahan and Wes Rucker, senior writer for GoVols247, compete with Rivals.com and Scout.com on a daily basis for the latest in recruiting news.

The Ledger caught up with Callahan for an analysis of Tennessee’s 2016 recruiting class, which finished No. 14 in the 247Sports Composite rankings after being ranked No. 22 the day before National Signing Day.

We asked Callahan about the Vols’ strong recruiting finish, needs that were and weren’t met in the class, what he thinks about quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, and other topics.

What do you think of the way UT finished on signing day?

“Starting with the pickup of Tyler Byrd on the night before signing day – that was really about as good of a finish as you could have envisioned for Tennessee. They had about five guys left on the board that they still wanted going into the day before signing day, and really, the only one they didn’t get was Derrick Brown, the five-star defensive tackle from the Atlanta area. He went to Auburn.

“To get four out of the five guys they really wanted down the stretch, that’s a pretty impressive finish. Not many people expected them to finish quite that strong.

"Jonathan Kongbo, the junior college defensive end, was kind of the cherry on top who pushed that finish into the ‘really good’ category. I think that they got what they really wanted down the stretch and pretty much filled all their needs for the most part. They definitely did about as well as expected.’’

Wasn’t the timing especially big with Nigel Warrior’s announcement in the morning and Kongbo later in the day?

“Exactly. Butch Jones, for whatever reason, his staff has managed to find a way to work some wonders with the timing of some of this good news in recruiting at times, and this was another good example of things falling their way in a pretty good time.

“They got a little buzz going into signing day with Tyler Byrd flipping from Miami to Tennessee at about 9 o’clock on Tuesday night, and then on signing day, it starts in the morning with Nigel Warrior. They got kind of a surprise commitment from Latrell Williams, who was a Miami commitment, flipping to Tennessee … [Williams] the wide receiver from Florida, flipping around mid- to late-morning and finishing the day with Jonathan Kongbo a couple hours later, so it was a good day for them in terms of the timing, and obviously, who they got.’’

Did you think Kongbo would end up at UT?

“From the time he de-committed, I think Tennessee was optimistic that it would still be a possibility. I think a couple of weeks later, or maybe 10 days later, it became pretty apparent that Tennessee still had a legitimate shot there. I think the longer it went on, the more it became apparent Tennessee really could pull this one off.

“Talking with Kongbo, I don’t think he thought Tennessee was really where he was going to end up when he de-committed on January 5. I think you’ve got to give Tennessee credit. He basically said they recruited him even harder from the time he de-committed and just never backed off. I think there was always that relationship there and a good comfort level with Tennessee.

“Really, I think Tennessee’s players and coaches did a good job of recruiting him and making him feel most comfortable there. It sounds like he’s excited about where Tennessee’s program is, and the fact that he can play a big part in what he called, ‘kind of the resurgence,’ in Tennessee football and helping them get back to competing for championships over the next few years.’’

What about Nigel Warrior? Was he leaning toward Tennessee the whole way?

Callahan

“Down the stretch it looked like he was definitely leaning toward Tennessee, but that wasn’t the case throughout, despite the fact he was a Tennessee legacy in Dale Carter’s son. [Carter was an All-American at UT].

“I think there was a time for a while there that Alabama was the favorite to land him. I think going into the month of December or so Alabama was still in the driver’s seat, and I think Kirby Smart leaving for Georgia [he was Alabama’s defensive coordinator but left in December to be head coach at Georgia] kind of opened the door for Tennessee to really finish strong with him.

“Georgia never seemed to be as much of a factor as Tennessee and Alabama, and Smart leaving for there maybe helped Georgia a little bit, but still not enough, and then it took away a little bit from Alabama. I think playing for Smart at Alabama was pretty enticing to (Warrior) and kind of falling into line with some of their good defensive backs they’ve produced that have gone on to the NFL.

“With Kirby Smart leaving, I think that made Alabama not quite as comfortable with him and also allowed Tennessee to become more of a steady presence where there weren’t as many coaching changes – despite the defensive coordinator switch with Bob Shoop. I think he felt a little more comfortable overall with the staff overall (at Tennessee).

“To their credit, they did a good job in recruiting him and just making sure he knew they were recruiting him as Nigel Warrior and not just as Dale Carter’s son. I think [it] definitely appealed [to him] … the idea of following his dad’s footsteps, but it wasn’t just because of that. He wanted to be recruited as his own player. Tennessee did a good job with that.’’

How do the 247Sports rankings weigh players and the number of players signed in a class?

“Everybody’s is different. In ours, it’s a cumulative thing. For every player you add to your class, there’s more points basically. So if you sign a larger class, that’s going to help you. That definitely played a role in Tennessee having a highly ranked class the past two years. Signing 30 or 32 guys like they did in 2014, that gives you much, much better odds of having a top five or top 10 class. That’s definitely a major reason why they finished outside the top 10 this year.

Warrior

-- Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

“If you look at the quality, this class compares pretty favorably to what they’ve signed the past two years. In fact, their average numerical rating for this class for the 21 players was a tenth of a point or two-tenths of a point higher than both of the past two classes that Butch Jones has signed at Tennessee, so actually it was the strongest class he’s signed so far in terms of average rating, but just not as strong top to bottom because he didn’t have 30 players or so.’’

What is the strongest position group, taking into consideration UT only signed one quarterback, Jarrett Guarantano?

“It’s definitely a big deal anytime you sign a top 100 quarterback. In this case, Jarrett Guarantano is ranked the No. 1 dual threat quarterback in the country. That’s always a pretty big win anytime you can add a guy like that when there’s not even an immediate path to playing time available. He’s going to have to sit for at least a year behind Josh Dobbs it looks like.

“With that being said, I think their strongest group is probably the secondary. To add Nigel Warrior and Tyler Byrd, both top 100 players, to go along with what was already a pretty good group with Marquill Osborne, a four-star guy who’s already on campus as an early enrollee, and Baylen Buchanan, a pretty talented three-star who’s pretty versatile and the son of Ray Buchanan, the former NFL cornerback.

“Also D.J. Henderson, the JUCO guy who maybe has a chance for some early playing time. That’s a strong group, top to bottom, when you count in the fact they added two really versatile top 100 players, really good athletes, that’s probably as talented of a secondary class that they’ve signed in a number of years, maybe since the recruiting services all started.

“They’ve signed some good classes in the past, but that position’s been a tough one for them over the years, cornerback in particular, and they really kind of restocked the cupboard there with what they signed in this class.’’

What about the two defensive linemen, Alexis Johnson and Kongbo, two highly rated players who should play immediately?

“Among the early impact guys in this class, those are certainly on the list, Alexis Johnson and Kongbo. They’ll both have a chance to play early and probably will play this year, I would say, but if there is a position they came up a little short numbers wise I would say it’s the defensive line. That’s the only problem with that class is they could have used at least a third guy and you could certainly argue for them having taken a fourth (defensive lineman).

Johnson

-- Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

“The reality is with a class of 21 you’re probably going to come up short somewhere, at some position, and it was just a matter of where it was going to be. Running back, they maybe could have taken a second one also, but the defensive line, I think they definitely feel like they came up maybe one or two short of what they would have liked to have gotten, but that said the two they got are very good, and they’re both guys that are going to help right away.’’

Editor's note: Johnson was suspended from the team Wednesday night after being arrested and charged with aggravated assault and false improsonment.

School spokesperson Ryan Robinson stated: "“We are aware of the report concerning Alexis Johnson. He has been suspended from all football activities. We will have no further comment at this time."

Do the three offensive linemen suit what UT needed at the position in this class?

“Really what was different about that group is there’s not really any guy in that class who’s probably going to contribute right away. They’re finally in position to have the luxury of taking some developmental guys. I think Ryan Johnson, the four-star from Brentwood [Academy], has the chance to be the guy who’s maybe ready to play earlier in his career, and maybe in a pinch could play this year, but they just don’t have to play him.

“The other two guys they took are strictly developmental tackles. Marcus Tatum and Nathan Niehaus both are under 260 pounds right now, and very lean, long tackles, who are going to need a year or two to add some weight and improve their strength before they’re really ready to play, and that’s how you develop really good tackles a lot of times. You take those types of guys who are really good athletes, and you build them up strength wise, and (the Vols) finally are in position to do that and not really having to force guys into the lineup right away.

“They got some guys who are really good prospects at that position, and in two or three years have a chance to be starters, but they’re just not needed to play right away.’’

What about the receivers, five including athletes Corey Henderson and Marquez Callaway?

“I think that’s about as under-rated a position group as they’ve signed in this class. I think Latrell Williams on signing day in particular could end up being a major steal. His film is fantastic. Not many people knew much about him until December or so, and his name started to get out there a little bit toward signing day. He ended up being a really high priority for Miami and Tennessee and Virginia Tech. He’s a steal, I think, and has really good speed and is a good fit for Tennessee’s system.

“Jeff George, a JUCO guy who’s already on campus, he’s going to have a chance to play right away, and at 6-6, gives them a red-zone target, and between Corey Henderson, Brandon Johnson and especially Marques Callaway, who’s the highest rated guy in the group, I think they have three guys with a lot of upside at those positions, and they just need to continue developing.

“But they’re all going to have a chance to contribute right away. We’ve seen Tennessee play some freshmen receivers over the past few years with Preston Williams and Juan Jennings last year. I think this group will be no different. At least a couple, or maybe three or four of those guys will have to play right away with as many receivers as Tennessee likes to rotate.’’

What’s your opinion of Guarantano? He seems like a perfect fit to follow what Dobbs does.

“It’s hard to imagine a better fit for Tennessee’s offense than Jarrett Guarantano and just his skill set. He’s got the arm strength, a stronger arm really than Dobbs, and he’s a faster runner than Dobbs in terms of straight-line speed. I’m not sure anyone has quite the ability to elude the pressure that Dobbs has. He’s pretty unique in that regard, but Guarantano is the type of guy who could break a 40- or 50-yard run pretty easily.

“He’s got fantastic speed and also a really strong arm. In terms of his skill set, he’s as talented as any quarterback in this class nationally, but he’s still a guy who’s not a finished product. He needs to continue to refine his mechanics and then work on his accuracy a bit at least in terms of consistency. I think having a year to sit back and watch Josh Dobbs, and continue to develop, will be really good for him.

“Obviously, once Dobbs is out of the picture, it’s not hard to envision Guarantano challenging at least Quinten Dormady for that starting job next year.’’

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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