NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Come Wednesday, high school football phenoms will transform from hopeful prospect to signed recruit. It’s called National Signing Day, when decisions are finally cast and commitments are maintained or swayed.
Even college coaches change their mind late in the process and offer a scholarship here or pull one off the table there. The jockeying for players continues all the way until that national letter of intent is signed, sealed and delivered, making for fluid movement on a team’s recruiting list these last few days.
Heading into the last weekend of high school football recruiting season, here’s a look at how the four FBS schools – Tennessee, Vanderbilt, MTSU and Memphis – in Tennessee stand as of Friday afternoon. Coaches and school officials can’t comment on players until they are signed.
New Vols coach Butch Jones and staff took over in early December and hit the ground running, assessing and then re-securing previous commitments to former coach Derek Dooley. Most important of that group was defensive end Jason Carr, a four-star prospect out of Memphis (Tenn.) Whitehaven.
“Being able to go back into Memphis and be able to hold on to a kid like Jason Carr was important,” said Chad Simmons, national recruiting analyst and South regional manager for Scout.com. “Alabama made a run at him. Other big schools did, too.”
On Wednesday, the Volunteers got another big commitment from wide receiver Marquez North, a four-star wide receiver out of Charlotte (N.C.)Mallard Creek. He chose UT over North Carolina, where he canceled an official visit this weekend. Scout.com has North ranked as the No. 12 receiver prospect in the nation. Still, Scout.com has UT currently listed as only 43rd overall in the national recruiting team rankings.
Jones inherits a team that had consecutive losing seasons for the first time in program history. Foregoing their senior seasons and departing early for the NFL Draft are quarterback Tyler Bray, receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter, and defensive tackle Darrington Sentimore.
“They are in on a lot of quality kids,” Simmons said of UT’s recruiting efforts under the new regime. “With a whole new staff and the short turnaround in time, it’s all about making and maintaining relationships.
“I have heard some good chatter about what Butch Jones and his staff are doing. But they still have some work to do to finish up this class.”
The class will be enhanced dramatically if the Vols sign linebacker Von Bell out of Rossville (Ga.) Ridgeland. Bell is also considering Alabama and Ohio State. He would be UT’s only five-star commitment to date.
Among the 19 current commitments and mid-term enrollees are seven in-state prospects, including the only other four-star prospect, two-way standout Jalen Reeves-Maybin out of Clarksville (Tenn.) Northeast. Another highly-recruited player from within the state is Austin Sanders, a 6-foot-5, 295-pound offensive lineman out of Cleveland Bradley Central.
After back-to-back winning seasons and bowl game berths, including the Music City Bowl victory over North Carolina State, Vanderbilt football is at an all-time high. The 9-4 record last season was the most wins in a season for the Commodores since 1915.
Coach James Franklin and staff are riding that wave and are on the cusp of garnering a consensus top-25 national recruiting ranking. Thus far, the Commodores have 24 commitments, including two mid-term enrollees.
“James Franklin is doing a great job getting kids to buy into his energy and enthusiasm,” Simmons said, “and they see that Vandy is on the upswing on the football field. It looks like they will have a top 25 class.
“He is recruiting players Vanderbilt couldn’t recruit just a few years ago, and he’s landing them as well.”
The best of the bunch is a trio of four-star prospects from Georgia, including middle linebacker Nigel Bowden, Macon Central; defensive tackle Jay Woods, Jackson High; and offensive tackle Delando Crooks, Atlanta Carver.
“Those are three of the best in Georgia,” Simmons said. “All three guys had multiple SEC and ACC offers, and they chose Vanderbilt.”
The Commodores did lose a recruiting feather in their helmet with a previous commitment from running back Johnathan “Rudy” Ford out of New Hope(Ala.). But he has decided against attending Vandy and is now considering Georgia, Florida State, Tennessee and Auburn.
A point of emphasis has been recruiting receivers. Thus far, Vandy has commitments from four receivers, plus a junior-college transfer at tight end in Brandon Vandenburg out of Palm Desert (Calif.) College of the Desert.
The Commodores have three commitments from Memphis, including wide receiver Latevius Rayford, Central High; and wide receiver Gerald Perry and Darrius Sims cornerback, both out of Whitehaven.
Scout.com currently has Vanderbilt’s class ranked 24th nationally.
MTSU coach Rick Stockstill guided the Blue Raiders to an eight-win season, but they felt like they got the shaft when they were snubbed for a fourth bowl game invitation in the last seven years.
Over the years, Stockstill and staff have kept their recruiting commitments notoriously close to the vest, mainly because every year their list gets cherry-picked late by schools from the larger conferences.
This year, though, it’s different. This coming school year, MTSU will move all its athletic programs from the Sun Belt Conference into Conference USA, a move seen by many as a step up, especially for football.
“I would expect the immediate move to Conference USA to help as much in keeping committed players as it will landing new prospects,” said Adam Sparks, veteran MTSU beat writer at The Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro. “I think the move to Conference USA might be enough to keep committed players on the board better than past years.”
MTSU currently has 14 commitments, including two mid-term enrollees in junior-college receivers Devin Clarke, El Dorado (Kan.) Butler Community College; and Chris Perkins, Poplarville (Miss.) Pearl River C.C. In fact, recruiting receivers was a point of emphasis this season. They also have a commitment from receiver Shannon Smith out of Macon (Ga.) Westside. He originally committed to Troy.
“On offense, MTSU lost its best receiver in Anthony Amos,” Sparks said. “It returns other wideouts, but numbers are needed there. The two mid-term signees, Devin Clarke and Chris Perkins, should fill that void pretty well.”
Scout.com currently ranks MTSU at 116th nationally.
It has always been said that, if only Memphis could keep all or most or some of the hometown talent at home, then the football program would not have been mired in mediocrity for all these years. Instead, any and every program worth its national recruiting salt finds its way to Memphis and environs to harvest talent.
“Memphis does about as good as it can at keeping good talent in state,” Simmons said. “It’s not easy going against all the programs they have to recruit against right there in their own backyard.”
If there is strength in numbers, then this incoming class of Tigers might be on the way to helping smooth the school’s move next season into the Big East Conference and out of Conference USA. Second-year coach Justin Fuentes can use the help sooner rather than later, considering the Tigers went 4-8 last season.
Thus far, the Tigers have five junior-college signees who will enter school during the spring semester, including freshman quarterback Brayden Scott out of Claremore (Okla.) Sequoyah. He was ranked the top quarterback prospect in Oklahoma by one recruiting service.
Running back Marquis Warford, out of San Antonio James Madison, was that city’s high school player of the year after rushing for 2,322 yards. He is smallish at 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds, but he got recruiting interest from TCU, Boise State and Texas Tech.
Of the 19 commitments, five are from Memphis and two from nearby Olive Branch. Miss. There are no prospects rated higher than three stars. Scout.com currently has the incoming class ranked 98th nationally.