Tennessee’s 2017 recruiting class was drama-free and received largely mixed reviews from sports pundits and fans. However, no amount of stars a player has next to his name can truly determine what the class of 2017 will accomplish over the next few seasons.
It doesn’t matter about the stars and the rankings it’s about how dedicated and willing you are to succeed in the game of football and life
— princetonfant (@pfant12) February 3, 2017
It even seems that Princeton Fant is already buying into the “champions of life” mantra.
According to 247Sports, the Vols’ recruiting class is a hodgepodge of three-star players. The well-known recruiting site lists 23 of Tennessee’s signees as three-star prpspects, but that doesn’t mean that this class lacks tremendous upside. If the coaching staff manages to maximize the talents of its incoming pool of student-athletes, here are the five signees with the most upside for the Vols.
5. Wide receiver Cooper Melton
Vol Nation might lack familiarity with Cooper Melton, but the preferred walk-on wide receiver from Cleveland, Tennessee, has a legitimate shot at outperforming his label in a big way. It’s no surprise Melton had to walk-on in order to make the team — Cleveland isn’t an area SEC scouts flock to. However, after reviewing Melton’s measurables and film, it’s easy to see why the Vols brought him on board. Standing at about 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighing around 195 pounds, Melton possesses the size to play wide receiver at the collegiate level.While he won’t ever be confused for a track star, his 40-yard dash time of 4.53 seconds is serviceable enough to make him a threat in the open field, as evident by his ability to burst after a screen for a big gain. On film, he showcased that a quarterback doesn’t need to deliver a perfect pass for Melton to make a catch due with his ability to contort his body in mid-air and make the difficult receptions.
This isn’t to say Melton will win the Fred Biletnikoff award, but evaluating upside also refers to a player’s ability to defy expectations. As a walk-on, Melton won’t face the same pressure a four-star player would, but given his tangibles and some future work ethic, Melton could bust through his walk-on tag and become a legitimate receiving threat for the orange and white.
4. Defensive tackle Eric Crosby
If you were a running back in 2016 and ran into the teeth of the Vol defensive line, the odds are that you would set a career-high in rushing yards and threatened NCAA rushing records. Due to an assortment of injuries to the interior defensive line, opposing offenses ran at will against Tennessee, especially during the latter half of the season. Against their last six FBS opponents, the Vols allowed 329 rushing yards per game, and due to the questionable health of Shy Tuttle and Khalil McKenzie, paired with the uncertainty of Jonathan Kongbo’s effectiveness when playing inside, 2017 likely won’t feature a dramatic improvement in the Tennessee run defense.
Enter Eric Crosby. The defensive tackle out of Virginia was one of the class’ more revered prospects for good reason. In an area of weakness for the Vols, Crosby provides a host of benefits, the most notable being his size and speed. While it’s true that transitioning from high school to college is a massive adjustment, Crosby might see early playing time due to the lack of depth Tennessee has in its interior defensive line. Should Crosby play early, it’ll be a long-term benefit for his development.
3. Running back Ty Chandler
Ty Chandler isn’t the biggest running back (5 feet 10 inches, 187 pounds), but he’s a big-play threat every time he touches the ball. In high school, Chandler rushed for a ridiculous 6,158 yards and 92 touchdowns on 7.6 yards per carry during his three seasons as a starter, according to 247Sports. After reviewing his tape for a few moments, it’s incredibly obvious why Chandler is such a force on the ground: His field vision and instincts are top notch.
Chandler is certainly a welcomed addition to an already competitive backfield in Knoxville, led by John Kelly. With Carlos Fils-aime already in the backup role, carries for Chandler might be limited early on, giving him time to bulk up. But it’s hard to imagine Tennessee not utilizing Chandler’s gifts as a runner at some point in 2017. While Chandler might lack size, he still displays the willingness to not only bounce outside, but fearlessly run into the crossfire of the trenches, which is a similar mindset to what Kelly possesses.
2. Safety Maleik Gray
When watching tape, certain players jump off the screen. Maleik Gray is one of those players. Immediately, it’s evident that Gray is a defender who is hell-bent on pursuing ball carriers with an aggressiveness that was, frankly, absent at times in Tennessee’s defense last season. Gray’s aggressiveness is more than taking the appropriate angles in pursuit or showing proper form in tackling. After his long strides help him converge on helpless offensive players, he always seems to tackle with a high level of confidence.
Due to his size, Gray is projected to move from outside linebacker to safety, a common position switch. Regardless of where Gray lines up on the field, he’ll be a missile set to blow up any player with the ball. While tackling and motor won’t be an issue, it’ll be interesting to see Gray’s development as a student of the game. With offenses being more athletic and complex in the college ranks, Gray’s coverage ability will be of the utmost importance.
1. Offensive tackle Trey Smith
It’s the cliché choice, but the right choice. There are plenty of reasons why Trey Smith was the No. 1 overall recruit for the class of 2017 (according to ESPN) and one of the nation’s elite tackle prospects. Like most, Smith will have to adjust to college ball. However, he’s amply prepared to do so in a swift manner due to his eye-popping skill set. With a 6-foot-6, 299-pound frame, Smith is a mammoth with the footwork of a classically trained ballet dancer. A player of Smith’s size shouldn’t be able to move so loosely in open space, but that’s exactly the type of player the Vols were fortunate enough to snag. In addition, his strength often overwhelms defensive linemen and leaves them flat on their backs. He won’t experience the same level of dominance against equally athletic defensive ends, but the seeds for success have been planted. Now, it’s up to Butch Jones’ coaching staff to apply the appropriate amount of water.
His physical tools aside, Smith also brings the right mental approach to a program accused of lacking mental toughness in high-pressure situations. Based on recent interviews, Smith exudes the vibe of a player who is dedicated to improving his craft each and every day. Clearly, the hype hasn’t gotten to Smith’s head, which isn’t easy for an 18-year-old kid to pull off. Instead, Smith understands that the understated cornerstone of every championship-caliber team is an effective offensive line. As a left tackle, Smith plays arguably the most important position on the field, and if he can protect a quarterback’s blindside — should he be right handed —on a consistent basis, then Tennessee’s offense could discover the consistency it has lacked in the past.
Edited by Nathan Odom
Featured image by Ben Proffitt