By Alex Norman
National Signing Day seems so ancient now.
In the olden days of 2017, everyone had to wait until the first Wednesday in February to find out who would encompass the recruiting class for that year. Sure, there were a few early enrollees, but the vast majority of that class would sign in February and head to campus in June.
But the early signing period has changed all that. For three days in mid-December, recruits can sign their national letters of intent, and not have to wait until February. On the first day (Wednesday, December 19) alone, Tennessee inked 17 players for a class that likely will finish with around 25.
“When you’re looking for guys to help build your program, to me the first thing you’re looking for is good people,” said Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt. “The guys that we signed, they have character, they have competitive toughness… they’re winners. Most of them were captains of their football team. They’re used to playing in December which I think is important. We’ve talked about it here before is you want to play your best ball at the end of the season. We had an opportunity to see a lot of these guys play late in the playoffs.”
Tennessee is a little better off heading into 2019 than they were in 2018 in terms of returning players. But some of the new Vols will get their shot to play right away. “What I think we are going to have is a lot of competition and lots of opportunity,” said Pruitt. “Our players have done a fantastic job recruiting these guys because they want to play with good players. The guys that we have coming 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… We wouldn’t have recruited them if we didn’t think they could contribute early. 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.””
The quarterback position is always crucial for the development of a football team. Tennessee brings in 4-star Brian Maurer from Ocala, Florida.
“Brian’s a guy that popped up on the radar late in the recruiting cycle for a quarterback,” said Pruitt. “It’s kind of interesting, the first day he shows up at Tennessee he works out for us and I’m in there meeting with him. His grandmother asks me, ‘Coach, when did you watch Brian’s tape?’ and I said, ‘This morning.’ We ended up offering him a scholarship.”
A huge get for Tennessee happened a day later, when Lausanne 4-star running back Eric Gray picked the Vols over Michigan and Alabama, among others. Gray has won three Mr. Football Awards in Tennessee, and led Lausanne to back to back state championships.
Some of these players that signed early will also head to the UT campus next month. But Pruitt doesn’t consider that to be a deal breaker when on the recruiting trail.
“We were looking for the best players, the best fit for us, and if they happened to be early enrollees, then that was great,” said Pruitt. “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. There are 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. To me, if you look at the generation we’re recruiting, sometimes they try to grow up too fast, and they want it right now. Does it help to have fifteen days of spring football? Probably.”
Perhaps the biggest announcement had nothing to do with teenagers picking Tennessee. Strength and Conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald turned down a job offer from Maryland to stay in Knoxville. “Craig came in this morning (December 19) and told me that he wants to finish what he started,” said Pruitt. “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.”