By Mark Nagi
Somehow, during the horrific COVID-19 pandemic, Tennessee’s football program is thriving.
I mean, thriving in the only way you can thrive when there are no games being played.
At last look, the Vols are second in the nation and first in the SEC in recruiting rankings for the Class of 2021. They went on an absolute roll at the end of April and beginning of May. Their recent haul includes 5-star outside linebacker Terrence Lewis of Hollywood, Florida and 5-star defensive end Dylan Brooks from Roanoke, Alabama. Tennessee also picked up a couple of 4-stars from Georgia, running back Cody Brown and wide receiver Julian Nixon. There’s also 4-star safety Kamar Wilcoxson of Bradenton, Florida.
In all, eighteen players have verbally committed to Tennessee, and they can’t sign for more than six more months. Certainly, there will be some kids that de-commit, and others will be added to the class as time goes on. But this news is nothing but positive for the future of the program.
Tennessee grad and SEC Network staple Paul Finebaum had this to say last week about what Vols head coach Jeremy Pruitt is doing on Rocky Top.
“I think he has momentum,” Finebaum said of Pruitt. “He’s getting players that Tennessee has not gotten in a long time, so he’s learned from others, especially his old boss (Nick Saban) in Tuscaloosa. I think he feels and senses the momentum, so he’s playing to it. No matter how you slice it, Jeremy Pruitt’s recruiting has been the story of this spring.”
Tennessee’s rivals have taken notice. Georgia tweeted a video of their win in Knoxville in 2019 shortly after one of the Vols new commitments made his decision public. A Florida assistant did something similar. Oklahoma’s twitter account posted a video from their 2015 win over Tennessee as a response as well. Finebaum believes this is the kind of thing that shows the Vols are moving in the right direction.
“The reason why I’m convinced Tennessee is on the cusp of returning to power, is I’m hearing criticism from other schools, competing schools, from rivals, that he’s not doing that great. I haven’t heard anybody mention Tennessee recruiting in so long… outside of a brief moment with (former Tennessee coaches) Butch Jones and Lane Kiffin for about twenty minutes, you have to go back to the heyday of Phillip Fulmer. It is amazing.”
The Butch Jones years do present reason for caution for Vols fans. His recruiting classes were ranked in the top 15 multiple times during his five-year tenure. That said, player development was not the strong suit of those coaching staffs.
With the Pruitt staff, things look different. Players actually improve from week to week, game to game. This fall, we will see if that progress continues. If it does, the Class of 2021 could be a special one at Tennessee.
So, is Tennessee back?
We won’t know for a while… but things are looking good.
Mark Nagi is the author of “Decade of Dysfunction,” which takes an up-close look at Tennessee’s crazy coaching search back in 2017. The book is available on Amazon.