By Jimmy Hyams
Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt was pleased with his December signing class that included 12 four-stars out of 21. The class had 10 in-state players, a trio of linebackers from the same school, an elite quarterback, massive offensive linemen, several two-way players, recruits that won state championships and were captains of their teams.
Here’s a look at some of the interesting notes about UT’s signing class.
- The Vols got two quarterbacks in pocket passer Harrison Bailey and athletic Jimmy Holiday, a TCU de-commit. “They couldn’t be any more different,’’ Pruitt said. Bailey hit the scene as an 8th grader and “never let that affect him,’’ Pruitt said. Bailey is a “big guy with a live arm’’ and great “anticipation.’’ Pruitt said Bailey was 6-5, 239 as a junior, lost about 20 pounds to gain mobility and improved his speed from a 5.2 to a 4.8 in the 40. Bailey led his team to the Georgia state 7A state title, throwing 4,261 yards, 44 touchdowns, 9 interceptions with a 69% completion rate. Holiday has been electronically timed in a 4.38 in the 40. “He’s a phenomenal athlete,’’ Pruitt said. “Any time he has the ball in his hands, he has the chance to go the distance for a touchdown.’’ Holiday threw for 1,020 yards and ran for 1,401.
- Tennessee could have five quarterbacks competing in the spring: Bailey, Holiday, Jarrett Guarantano, Brian Maurer and J.T. Shrout. “It’s a good thing,’’ Pruitt said. “One thing that I figured out a long time ago: You better keep signing quarterbacks until you’ve got one. Because if you don’t ever have one, it’s hard to win a game.’’
- The trio Tennessee signed from Memphis Whitehaven all grew up fans of other SEC teams. Martavious French was an LSU fan. Tamarion McDonald liked Alabama. Jacob Eason pulled for Florida because of Tim Tebow, a “freakish athlete,’’ Eason said. While Pruitt said Eason weighs 270, Eason said he’s 255 and can run from sideline to sideline. McDonald considers himself an elite athlete. In the eighth grade, he said he scored 33 points in the first half of a basketball game. He finished with 39 and didn’t play the fourth quarter.
- Jabari Small, an Ole Miss de-commit, reminds Pruitt of UT’s Eric Gray, who set a school freshman record with 246 yards against Vanderbilt. Small can play the slot or tailback and is a candidate to run a rocket sweep and return punts and kicks, Pruitt said. Small has had at least two relatives play receiver in the SEC.
- After UT lost five-star OL Cade Mays to Georgia, the Vols did a nice job landing his younger brother, Cooper Mays. Cooper isn’t as big as his older brother, but he’s aggressive. Catholic coach Steve Matthews said Cooper plays to the whistle, Cade played through it, which is why Cade had so many penalties in high school. Tim Irwin, former star OL at Tennessee and with the Minnesota Vikings, said he thinks Cooper will have as big an impact during his career as any of UT’s signees. Mays has “tremendous upside,’’ Pruitt said.
- Len’Neth Whitehead of Athens, Ga., could make an immediate impact as a short-yardage back. Whitehead is 6-2, 235, and powerful, said his coach, Josh Alexander. Rated the No. 10 inside linebacker in the country, Whitehead had his senior season curtailed by a foot injury. Alexander said Whitehead ran for 1,700 yards as a junior, and had one game with 300 yards on 32 carries and another with 200 yards on five carries. Whitehead is also rated the nation’s No. 1 high school shot putter with a best effort of 68 feet. Whitehead plans to put the shot at Tennessee.
- Receiver Jalin Hyatt of Irmo, S.C. – he played at the same school as UT cornerback Bryce Thompson – brings great speed. He ran 100 meters in 10.4 seconds. He also won four state titles and his team was 51-1-1 during his prep career.
- Safety Keshawn Lawrence of Nashville is rated by some the No. 1 player in the state of Tennessee. Pruitt said Lawrence can play all five secondary positions and “reminds me of a few guys I’ve coached over the years that play in the NFL.’’ Lawrence has great instincts and can be a return man.
- Tennessee didn’t offer safety Deneiko Slaughter after he camped in Knoxville. But UT thought he had unique cover skills, great hips and movement. He scored four defensive touchdowns in high school and is a “ball hawk,’’ Pruitt said. UT flipped him from being an Arizona State commit.
- Henry Russell, head coach at St. Frances Academy in Baltimore, Md., said defensive tackle Dominic Bailey has great potential. “His best days are ahead of him,’’ Russell said. “He’s athletic, powerful, quick off the ball … and he’s a good pass rusher.’’ Bailey transferred in from another school but made an immediate impact. “He had a great senior year,’’ Russell said. Pruitt said the linemen were so big at St. Frances when he went to watch them practice, “I thought it was the Pittsburgh Steelers.’’ For what it’s worth, Russell doesn’t like the early signing period because it “hurts seniors who have a big year’’ since most schools have done their evaluation before a prospect’s 12th grade.
- While Russell doesn’t like the December signing period, Pruitt said he does value a player who does well in his final high school campaign. “You wanna sign guys who play their best ball in the later part of their career,’’ Pruitt said. “If they’re not playing their best as a senior, you better figure out why. We feel all our guys were playing their best as a senior.’’
- While UT signed several two-way players, Pruitt said he recruits guys to play certain positions. “It doesn’t do any good to tell ‘em one thing and do another,’’ Pruitt said. He gave two examples. He said Bryce Thompson, primarily a high school quarterback, asked to play corner. Alontae Taylor, who played mostly receiver in high school, tried receiver and corner before electing to stay on defense, Pruitt said.
- Tennessee signed players who were once committed to Arkansas, Arizona State, Florida State, Florida, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, TCU and Virginia Tech. Five are playing in high school All-America games: snapper Will Albright, Dominic Bailey, Harrison Bailey, Omari Thomas and Lawrence.