The future of Tennessee football appeared dire upon Josh Heupel's arrival on Rocky Top just over a year ago. The Volunteers were coming off a three-win campaign, in the midst of an investigation into recruiting violations committed by the previous staff, and the roster had already taken a major hit due to a mass exodus of players via the transfer portal. It was the perfect storm for failure, particularly on the recruiting trail, where the Vols' new-look staff was already well behind the eight ball. Fortunately, they were able to overcome most of the obstacles created by the former regime en route to a better-than-expected seven-win season and a third-place finish in the SEC East in 2021, boasting one of the top offenses in the country in the process. That ultimately paid dividends on the recruiting trail, helping Heupel and Co. land the No. 17 class in the nation and eighth the SEC, per the 247Sports Composite.
It's a solid class consisting of 21 prospects, 13 of whom are already on campus as mid-term enrollees. The Vols also added Florida offensive tackle Gerald Mincey from the transfer portal, along with a handful of non-scholarship additions. And there are sure to be more additions by way of the transfer portal in the coming months. The question is — which of these talented newcomers have the potential to make a significant contribution as early as next fall?
Here are five newcomers that are most likely to make an impact for the Volunteers during the 2022 season:
Desmond "Dee" Williams, CB
The secondary remains one of Tennessee's biggest question marks this offseason, particularly at cornerback where the Vols have some big shoes to fill with the departure of Alontae Taylor and Theo Jackson. That leaves the door wide open for Williams, the No. 2-ranked junior college cornerback in the '22 recruiting cycle. Williams spent the last three seasons at East Central (Miss.) Community College where he racked up 103 tackles and 13 interceptions in 23 career games. He led all juco players during the 2021 season with seven picks and ranked second nationally with 14 pass breakups. The ball-hawking cornerback brings much-needed experience, talent, and athleticism to the table and will be among the top candidates to land a starting spot this spring. He could also carve out a prominent role as a return specialist for the Vols after averaging an impressive 27.9 yards per kickoff return and 50.7 yards per punt return with a touchdown in each category at ECCC. Williams is already on campus and has two years of eligibility remaining.
Kaleb Webb, WR
Webb put himself on the map following a breakout senior season at McEachern High School in Powder Springs, Georgia, where he hauled in 83 passes for 1,601 yards and 18 touchdowns to earn all-state honors. The 4-star prospect is one of four wide receivers in Tennessee's latest recruiting class. And while all four have a realistic chance at making an early impact for the Vols, Webb looks to be the most complete and field-ready player among that group. At 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, Webb is already an imposing figure with track speed and looks to have all the tools necessary to succeed at the wide receiver position in the SEC. And with standouts Velus Jones Jr. and JaVonta Payton exhausting their eligibility, Webb appears poised to step in right away and challenge for playing time as an outside receiver opposite Cedric Tillman, especially since he is already on campus as an early enrollee.
Justin Williams, RB
The 4-star prospect racked up 2,116 all-purpose yards and 14 touchdowns as a senior last season at East Paulding High School in Georgia. Williams brings a nice blend of size (6-0, 215), speed and athleticism to Tennessee's running back room that was sorely missing at times last season, particularly in short-yardage and goal-line situations. He's already added 10 pounds of muscle since arriving in Knoxville as an early enrollee and may be the most complete running back on the Vols' roster. Williams should help fill the void left by Tiyon Evans (transferred to Louisville) and be heavily in the mix for playing time this season alongside speedsters Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright.
Gerald Mincey, OT
The 6-foot-6, 320-pound offensive tackle out of Cardinal Gibbons High School in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, spent the last two seasons with the in-state Gators, appearing in 11 games. He was expected to take on a bigger role in 2022 before opting to enter the transfer portal and ultimately landing at Tennessee. While the Vols return four starters along the offensive line, they are still tasked with replacing arguably their best one in All-SEC right tackle Cade Mays. Mincey will have plenty of competition for the vacated right tackle spot with Jeremiah Crawford and Dayne Davis also vying for the starting job. However, Mincey looks to be the early favorite. At a minimum, the physically imposing lineman should become a key contributor and provide much-needed depth next fall. Mincey has three seasons of eligibility remaining.
James Pearce, Edge
The gifted pass rusher out of Charlotte, North Carolina, was designated as a 5-star prospect and the nation's 11th-ranked player overall, according to On3. Pearce compiled 14.5 sacks, 14 tackles for a loss, three forced fumbles, two safeties, two interceptions, and nine pass breakups last season as a senior at Chambers High School. He is widely regarded as one of the most dynamic and disruptive edge prospects in the 2022 recruiting class. And while Byron Young and Tyler Baron both return as pass-rush specialists for the Vols, Pearce is talented enough to make a name for himself in that role in short order. Pearce is tall (6-5), but he will need to add quite a bit of weight to his frame, as he's listed at just 220 pounds. He will be a little behind schedule as a summer arrival. However, Pearce could very well prove to be a real difference-maker for defensive coordinator Tim Banks as early as this fall. Joshua Josephs is another talented edge rusher in this year's class to keep an eye on.
Five more Tennessee newcomers to watch:
Tyre West, DL
Addison Nichols, OL
Joshua Josephs, Edge
Marquarius White, WR
Jordan Phillips, DL
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— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.