Vols’ 2017 recruiting class is solid but lacks star power of previous classes

Dec 30, 2016; Nashville , TN, USA; Tennessee Volunteers head coach Butch Jones reacts to his team scoring a touchdown against the Nebraska Cornhuskers during the first half at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into his fifth-year as the Vols’ head coach, the key for Butch Jones’ 2017 signing class is filling positions of need and adding depth to the roster. Jones will do so with Wednesday’s signing class.

The 2017 class fills needs on defense, which is critical for coordinator Bob Shoop, who must repair a unit that finished 95th overall nationally in 2016. With the departure of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara from the backfield, 4-star prospect Ty Chandler will headline incoming running backs to help provide much-needed depth behind John Kelly and Carlin Fils-aime.

The class also provides depth in the secondary with Maleik Gray, Cheyenne Labruzza, Terrell Bailey, Theo Jackson and Shawn Shamburger. The defensive line unit adds Deandre Johnson (early enrollee), Eric Crosby, Matthew Butler, Kivon Bennett and Ryan Thaxton. The offensive line has additions of Trey Smith, the nation’s No. 14 prospect, Riley Locklear and K’Rojhn Calbert.

The biggest difference between this class and some of Jones’ previous ones is the lack of elite talent: There are just five combined 5-star and 4-star prospects in the class, compared with 10 in 2016, 16 in 2015 and 16 in 2014.

SEC class rank: 6
Overall class rank: 14

5-stars: 1
4-stars: 4
3-stars: 23

Did they own the state? No. Butch Jones was unable to lock down the Volunteer state for the first time during his tenure. Getting Trey Smith from Jackson, Tenn., somewhat salvages only having three of the top-10 players stay at home.

LSU and Clemson each signed two of the state’s top-10 players.

Jones has stressed the importance of signing Tennessee’s best high school football players, but that goal has slipped a bit since the program-changing 2014 class, which included 9 of the state’s top 11 players.

Top player: Trey Smith, a 5-star prized recruit and rated as the No. 1 overall prospect in the nation by ESPN, is a two-time Tennessee Mr. Football. He’s one of the most decorated prospects to sign with Tennessee, arguably since Peyton Manning in 1994. He chose Tennessee over numerous offers, including Alabama and Ohio State.

Still chasing: Octavius Matthews, a 3-star athlete from Itawamba Community College in Fulton, Miss., committed to Auburn on June 5. He decommitted last week and took an official visit to Tennessee.

Defensive end Aaron Sterling is also in the mix. After visiting Rocky Top in mid-January, the Tucker, Ga. 3-star product will choose between South Carolina and Tennessee.

The Tennessee coaching staff is also in the finalist category for 5-star defensive lineman LaBryan Ray, even though 247Sports.com’s crystal ball lists Ray as a 100 percent Alabama commit.

Another last-minute recruit Tennessee is after is 3-star wide receiver/athlete Jordan Pouncey, a former Notre Dame commit who visited the Vols this past weekend. Pouncey has Miami, Texas and Tennessee among his final teams.

Best unit: The Vols will be strong on the offensive line in 2017. The only loss from the unit is Dylan Wiesman.

Trey Smith will gain valuable experience by enrolling early and going through spring practices and offseason strength and conditioning. Smith will be able to play any position on the line. Riley Locklear is another early enrollee who can come provide depth.

Biggest area of need filled: The linebacker unit has not been a strong suit since A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt were side-by-side in 2014. Darrin Kirkland, Jr. is the alpha within the unit entering 2017. Shoop will have the luxury of Shanon Reid (early enrollee), Will Ignont and Solon Page III by helping retool and provide depth.

Better or worse than last year? Depending on what happens Wednesday, the classes appear similar. The 2016 class ranked No. 14 nationally, but it included a potential quarterback of the future in Jarrett Guarantano and 10 4-star prospects.

The 2017 class is headlined by Smith, a 5-star offensive lineman, but has just four 4-stars.

Several 2016 prospects also played meaningful snaps as true freshmen. That will be a challenge for the 2017 class to meet.

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  • ***3-star bUTch! Lol. Lost Conliffe to Gators today. Losing LaBray Ray yo Bama tomorrow.

  • Butch hasnt owned the state of Tennessee since he arrived here, which is something is said he was gonna do. Butch does sell UT very well, but after that he bombs. Thats why no elite commits. I don’t think Butch is a good coach, he is a great car salesman, but cant coach a lick. He makes very bad decisions and doesnt surround himself with the best. He chooses to buddy hire and hire from within. Look at most big time programs and great coaches and they go out and try to hire the best. Not Jones. Dont get me wrong, in most conferences you can get by with that but not in the SEC. SEC you have to bring it week after week. Thats why this is Butchs last year. He peaked at 9-4 and could of had more but his decision and coaching choices cost him.

    • So adding to that, whats your opinion of the OC hire? I had my fingers crossed that helfrich would be calling plays next year, but we did have an alright year offense wise. But i also think hurd shouldve been used as a downhill runner more like last years bowl game

      • I like coach Scott. I think Jones put him in a bad spot by knowing he HAS to win this year. Plus almost all the offense graduated or left he team. Almost the entire offense will be new. Which Dobbs was the offense. The whole offensive unit revolved around how well Dobbs played. Scott brings alot to the table as far as coaching goes with his experience and recruiting. Helfrick wasnt about to take a 1 year job plain and simple. I believe if this was 2 years ago, with all the weapons that Tennessee had, it would of been a no brainer for him to come to Tennessee. Going to be interesting this year. Jones HAS to win. Hurd leaving the program cost Jones I believe. When recruits see someone that high profile leave a program, it doesnt look good. Jones is gonna have to pull a rabbit out of his hat this year to keep his job.

  • Not gonna be the guy to defend the plethora of 3 star talent we are going to sign, but 3 butch jones has a knack for diamons in the rough. Cam sutton was a 3 star athlete coming in. And he turned out to be a shut down corner. And so far, 2 5* players, kongbo and khalil mckenzie, have underperformed. They should breakout this year, but theres just a few examples that star ranking dont always equal on field results

  • Bama, Georgia, LSU, Auburn, Florida, 3-star bUTch 🍊

  • Doesn’t the fake UT’s color look tangerine instead of orange?