Following an abysmal 1-3 start to the Tennessee Volunteers' 2019 campaign, the idea that they would end up with a top-10 recruiting class seemed laughable. But thanks in part to a remarkable turnaround that saw Tennessee close out the season with six straight wins, including a victory over Indiana in the Gator Bowl, Jeremy Pruitt and Co. managed to turn that seemingly impossible task into a reality. The Vols would ultimately strike gold on National Signing Day, landing three highly sought-after prospects to propel them into the No. 10 spot in the national recruiting rankings.
Unlike last year’s class, Tennessee’s 2020 signing class doesn’t include any five-star prospects. However, this year’s haul looks to be superior from top to bottom — featuring 13 four-stars and nine three-stars. This stellar group of newcomers is further bolstered by key additions via the transfer portal. Wideout and return specialist Velus Jones Jr. will be eligible immediately as a graduate transfer from USC. Meanwhile, Cade Mays, a former five-star offensive line prospect and 18-game starter at Georgia, is still awaiting a decision from the NCAA to determine his eligibility for the upcoming season (and is not included in this list for that reason).
Overall, this is Pruitt’s best recruiting class to date. More importantly, it gives the Vols an influx of young talent that should help fill some of their biggest needs, while providing much-needed depth across the board. In fact, several of these newcomers have the potential to make a significant impact in just their first year on Rocky Top. Here are five such candidates that could pay big dividends for Tennessee in the upcoming 2020 season and beyond.
Harrison Bailey, QB
Jeremy Pruitt has already indicated that Tennessee’s starting quarterback job will be Jarrett Guarantano’s to lose heading into the 2020 campaign. However, if the 2019 season was any indication, the fifth-year senior may be hard-pressed to hang on to the starting job. That could open the door for one of several aspiring Tennessee quarterbacks to ascend to the top of the depth chart this season. But none are more intriguing than Bailey, a four-star true freshman who will likely enter spring practice as the most talented signal-caller on the Vols’ 2020 roster.
Ranked as the No. 3 pro-style quarterback in the nation (according to the 247Sports composite), Bailey completed 69.8 percent of his passes for 4,674 yards, 50 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions as a senior at Marietta (Ga.) High School last season. He also led his team to the Georgia 7-A state championship in 2019. Bailey (6-4, 217) has ideal size and all the tools necessary to excel as an elite passer at the collegiate level. It would not be the least bit surprising to see him under center for the Vols at some point this season, maybe even in a starting capacity.
Keshawn Lawrence, DB
A four-star product out of Nashville’s Ensworth High School, Lawrence was ranked the No. 1 prospect in the state of Tennessee. He also has the distinction of being the highest-rated signee in the Vols’ 2020 class. One of the things that set the 6-foot-2, 205-pound defensive back apart is his versatility. Lawrence is capable of playing any position in Tennessee’s secondary, which should give him a leg up when he arrives in Knoxville later this summer.
The Vols are already deep at defensive back, so it may prove somewhat difficult for Lawrence to crack the starting lineup prior to the start of the 2020 season. But he is certainly talented enough to do so. And at a minimum, it shouldn’t take long for him to carve out a significant role somewhere in Tennessee’s secondary, most likely at safety. Lawrence also is a gifted return specialist and could feature prominently in that role as well. Safety prospect Doneiko Slaughter is another newcomer that could make some noise this season.
Tyler Baron, OLB/EDGE
With star outside linebacker Darrell Taylor off to make a name for himself in the NFL, the Vols will be in search of someone to replace their best pass rusher at outside linebacker over the last two seasons. Players like Kivon Bennett, Deandre Johnson, and Roman Harrison have shown some promise in their abilities to fill that role. As has rising sophomore Quavaris Crouch, although his future may actually lie at inside linebacker. But none of those candidates appear to have a stronghold on Taylor’s vacant spot.
That leaves the door wide open for Baron to stake his claim. The four-star prospect out of Knoxville’s Catholic High School, already has an SEC-ready frame (6-5, 256) and top-flight athleticism to go along with it. Baron isn’t scheduled to arrive on campus until later this summer, but he is sure to make a strong push for Taylor’s vacant outside linebacker position upon his arrival. He might even find himself pulling double duty with his hand in the dirt as a defensive end in Tennessee’s 3-4 scheme. Four-star Morven Joseph is an intriguing newcomer that could also emerge as a potent edge rusher for the Vols this fall.
Bryson Eason, ILB
Daniel Bituli also leaves some big shoes to fill at inside linebacker after leading the Vols in tackles in each of the last three seasons. Henry To’o To’o, who had a breakout freshman campaign alongside Bituli at inside linebacker in 2019, should fill that void. But that still leaves a glaring hole at the other inside linebacker spot for Tennessee. And the list of potential replacements is rather short.
Quavaris Couch appears to be the top candidate, but he could just as easily end up at outside linebacker. Redshirt sophomore J.J. Peterson will be a factor if he can finally live up to his lofty billing coming out of high school. And junior Solon Page III has shown flashes at times but has yet to prove that he can handle the rigors of being a starting linebacker in the SEC. Other candidates will likely emerge as spring practice progresses. However, the Vols’ future at inside linebacker, alongside To’o To’o, could very well be on its way this summer in the form of the four-star prospect Eason.
One of three highly touted signees in Tennessee’s 2020 recruiting class out of Memphis' Whitehaven High School, Eason already weighs in at an imposing 270 pounds. But he wears it well on his 6-foot-2 frame. If Eason can pick up the system and defensive play calls in short order this summer, he may even find himself in the starting lineup at some point this season. At the very least, he should make an impact, providing quality depth in Tennessee’s short-handed linebacker rotation. Eason’s high school teammate and fellow four-star, Martavius French, also looks to be a contender at inside linebacker upon his arrival this summer.
Malachi Wideman, WR
Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway, far and away Tennessee’s most productive wide receivers in 2019, have exhausted their eligibility. That leaves a huge void that must be filled, and the competition to fill those vacated spots should be intense leading into the 2020 season. Senior Josh Palmer appears poised to take over as the No. 1 option at receiver in 2020. But beyond Palmer, the Volunteers are largely unproven at the wide receiver position. Brandon Johnson and Ramel Keyton are considered frontrunners to land starting jobs. However, there are several other intriguing candidates that are expected to give Johnson and Keyton a serious run for their money this spring — including Georgia transfer Deangelo Gibbs, USC transfer Velus Jones Jr. and rising sophomore Cedric Tillman.
That said, the competition really heats up later this summer with the arrival of three highly touted newcomers — Wideman, Jalin Hyatt, and Jimmy Calloway. All three freshmen have the potential to emerge as standouts in Tennessee’s receiving corps this fall. But Wideman appears to be the most polished and field-ready option in the bunch.
A two-sport star and four-star football prospect out of Venice, Florida, Wideman switched his commitment from Florida State to Tennessee on National Signing Day, giving the Vols one of the top wide receiver prospects in the nation. At 6-foot-5 and just under 200 pounds, he provides a big target with elite athleticism and great hands. He has the potential to be a star in year-one.
*Note: While there was only room for five players on this list, it is worth noting that four-star defensive tackle prospects Omari Thomas and Dominic Bailey narrowly missed the cut. Both players have SEC-ready frames and are talented enough to easily penetrate a deep Tennessee defensive line rotation this fall. Given that opportunity, Thomas and Bailey both have the potential to emerge as stars in their first season in Knoxville.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.