published Sunday, January 12th, 2014

Half of UT Vols' strong class already in school

Butch Jones sits with his team in this file photo.
Butch Jones sits with his team in this file photo.

KNOXVILLE — For the 14 players who began their Tennessee football careers this week, the adjustment is under way.

The Volunteers need their early arrivals to be quick learners.

With roughly half of a recruiting class that's been rated among the nation's best since last spring now on campus, the anticipation can begin for a group coach Butch Jones and his staff hope can help turn around Tennessee's program.

"There are some things we have to understand: Some of these individuals are 17 years old going away to college for the first time, so everything is changing for them," Jones said last month. "Their friends, the expectations, the work volume of being in a collegiate setting with academics, with the offseason strength and conditioning -- that's why we're going to have to rely on our older players to really nurture them, so to speak, and bring them along.

"All 14 individuals are of high character and extremely, extremely competitive, and I know they're looking forward to it."

Tennessee's class sits third in the country according to Rivals.com, fifth nationally per 247sports.com and third in ESPN's class rankings, and the 14 who started their Vols careers this week includes one five-star recruit and six four-star prospects, according to 247sports.com. And one of those four-stars is a Rivals five-star.

In a class that will arrive with sky-high expectations, the hopes and anticipation are the highest for Jalen Hurd, the five-star tailback who committed to Tennessee last March, fresh off a state-record-setting junior season at Beech High School in Hendersonville.

The 6-foot-3, 227-pound Hurd is nearly five months removed from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder, and though he did not participate in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio last week, he's expected to be cleared later this month and be ready for spring practice.

"Jalen is a Tennessee-bred kid," Tennessee running backs coach Robert Gillespie said. "It's always great to coach a kid who understands the pride of the state that he's playing for. His unique blend of speed and power will give him a chance to help us at running back immediately."

Though Hurd may be the most important player among the new additions, that hardly means the other 13 players aren't valuable to a program needing to upgrade its talent and develop its depth.

"It started first and foremost with areas of need," Jones said in December, explaining the process of how the Vols chose the 14 January enrollees they did. "We all know that we need offensive linemen, we needed defensive linemen, we needed skill players. We really need everything."

That's evident in the makeup of the newest Vols.

After last season's struggles at receiver, Von Pearson and Josh Malone were necessary for an offense needing skill-position talent. Pearson, a junior college transfer, and Malone, the Rivals five-star mid-Tennessee prospect the Vols landed early last month, both arrive following seasons in which they put up big numbers and produced impressive highlight reels.

Landing Malone was crucial for Tennessee's class, and he'll be expected to contribute immediately as a freshman, much like Marquez North did this past season.

"I'm extremely excited to coach Josh," receivers coach Zach Azzanni said. "The sky is the limit for his potential. He is incredibly competitive with the mindset and skill set to compete at the highest level."

Tennessee lost all five starting offensive linemen from last season, so the Vols needed immediate help there. There are three new linemen, including junior college transfer Dontavius Blair, who already is a likely starter at tackle. Tennessee's staff likes both Coleman Thomas and Ray Raulerson, and both will benefit from an early start to their careers.

The Vols lost six seniors off their defensive line, so the additions of Owen Williams, Dimarya Mixon and Joe Henderson were badly needed. Williams is a junior college transfer who will have to hold down a rotation spot at a thin tackle position. One year removed from high school, Mixon has the ability to play end or tackle.

In his first year of football after moving to the United States from Germany, Jakob Johnson recorded 112 tackles, so the 6-4, 240-pounder certainly has some upside.

Cornerbacks D'Andre Payne and Emmanuel Moseley provide depth at a position that simply had none last season. Both players have good speed, and though Moseley will need to add weight to his slender frame, both players should push upperclassmen such as Justin Coleman and Riyahd Jones.

"We need to generate and create competition across the board," Coach Jones said. "You do that through the recruitment process. That's why we are excited to welcome 14 new individuals at midyear."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com

CHANGE IN PLANS

Tennessee announced Saturday afternoon that athlete Neiko Creamer had joined the Vols' program and enrolled in school and removed Cleveland-area defensive end Joe Henderson from the official roster on its website just a few days after confirming him as one of 14 spring-semester enrollees.

Both players were among the group of possible early enrollees, and Henderson, though announced as an addition on Wednesday, was waiting for some final academic clearances before he could move to Knoxville. Creamer, out of Eastern Christian Academy in Maryland, was in a similar position with the NCAA clearinghouse.

Henderson was not among the dozen new players who began classes Wednesday, and he'll now instead sign in February and enroll in the summer with the rest of Tennessee's 2014 recruiting class, with Creamer taking his place.

Creamer's early arrival will allow the Vols to get a head start on determining where to put the 6-3, 223-pounder, who played receiver this past season. He's rated as a three-star prospect by every major recruiting service. His father, Andre Creamer, played defensive back and returned punts for the Vols (1984-87).

"Neiko is a big athlete that can do a variety of things," Tennessee receivers coach Zach Azzanni said. "He loves the game and understands Tennessee football. We are excited to have him as a part of what we are building."

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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