UT football scrimmage on Saturday at Neyland Stadium
In February 2014, Tennessee will sign its first class researched, nurtured and recruited entirely by Butch Jones and his staff.
If everything goes as planned, Jones will sign a big class stocked with big men.
The Vols lose at least four offensive linemen and six defensive linemen to graduation after the 2013 season, depleting positions on the roster that are already thin.
“We need to up our numbers,” said defensive line coach and associate head coach Steve Stripling.
That makes the 2014 signing class — which has jumped to No. 6 nationally in the 247Sports composite rankings — both vitally important and exceptionally challenging. After signing only 21 players in 2013, UT could bring in as many as 29 in 2014, assuming four enroll early. Roughly one-third of that group could be linemen.
Linemen, and especially offensive linemen, are notoriously difficult to evaluate compared to peers who play running back, receiver or safety. They’re are also the least likely to make an immediate impact as true freshmen, meaning the Vols might consider browsing the junior college ranks to balance out the roster.
While Stripling and offensive line coach Don Mahoney can evaluate prospects using metrics for height, weight, strength and speed — just like any other position — they’re also looking for players who have a certain mean streak.
“I want a guy who’s physical,” Mahoney said. “I want to see a guy on film who really excites me with the way he plays. That’s really important. You want to have a guy where that’s in his personality, and he likes to mix it up.”
Mahoney urgently needs reinforcements. Probable starters James Stone, Ja’Wuan James, Zach Fulton and Alex Bullard are all seniors. The fifth starter, junior Antonio “Tiny” Richardson, will have a chance to leave early for the NFL after this season.
The losses will be magnified because the line has so little depth. There are only 10 scholarship offensive linemen on the spring roster, although three freshmen will join the team this summer.
UT didn’t sign an offensive lineman in 2012. Jones wanted to bulk up the numbers in 2013, but missed on Dan Skipper, a longtime commitment who switched to Arkansas, and junior college prospect Chongo Kondolo who signed with Nebraska.
To reach 15 scholarship offensive linemen in 2014 — a reasonable but probably overly ambitious goal — the Vols would have to sign six this year. If Richardson leaves, that number would be seven. Any other attrition adds to that total.
Of the holdovers, third-year sophomores Mack Crowder and Kyler Kerbyson have made big strides this spring, Mahoney said. Juniors Marques Pair and Alan Posey still need to do more to factor in. Junior Marcus Jackson is the most experienced of the group and could fight for a starting job this spring.
Those five players have five career starts — all by Jackson — but could be the only veterans remaining in 2014.
Beyond that group, UT signed three freshmen in February — Austin Sanders, Dylan Wiesman and Brett Kendrick — and Coleman Thomas is the single commitment so far in the 2014 class.
That’s why Mahoney has been watching a lot of tape of potential linemen. What are the Vols looking for? He rattles off a list: “How athletic is he? Can he run? Does he use his hands well? Is he a great technician? How smart is he? Is he able to grasp things? In a system where you’ve got to play fast, under the pressure, under the noise, how quickly does he respond? And then, obviously, there’s size. The bigger, the better.”
The situation is almost as dire on the defensive line, where the Vols will lose Maurice Couch, Daniel Hood, Daniel McCullers, Corey Miller, Jacques Smith and Marlon Walls after 2013.
Those six seniors enter the year with 171 games and 50 starts between them. The other seven scholarship defensive linemen have only 30 games and seven starts.
The good news for Stripling is three freshmen arrive this summer, including well-regarded prospect Jason Carr, who could be groomed for one of those 2014 vacancies right away.
In a perfect world, Stripling said he’d love to have 18 linemen in his meeting room. Getting that many on scholarship won’t happen anytime soon. A more modest goal of 15 would still require the Vols to sign five defensive linemen this year. As of today, they have zero.
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.