As a result, the Vols have cranked up their search to add an offensive tackle to the 2014 class in recent weeks. But Tennessee faces several challenges with its remaining targets. The odds of landing another offensive lineman look slim.
However, note this: Tennessee wants to add a tackle to this class, yes, but it's not going to take just any player to simply fill a need. Tennessee offensive line coach Don Mahoney has told InsideTennessee countless times that he feels comfortable where he stands with his offensive line heading into next season and feels he has the luxury to shop around without any real urgency. It's nearly a: if the Vols get a tackle, good, If they don't, oh well, scenario. Mahoney points to the redshirting of Marcus Jackson and the commitment of JUCO tackle Dontavius Blair as cushions for his inexperienced unit next season.
Recent Florida pledge David Sharpe is the quintessential example. As IT has reported several times, the Vols didn't feel he was the right player for that tackle need and cooled his recruitment in the final weeks before his announcement.
Recent offers to Derrick Kelly and Ben Knox could very well be feelers for Mahoney and the Vols – extending an offer to see if they have a shot.
Here's a look at the offensive line situation for next season: Mack Crowder likely steps in unchallenged at center with tackle Kyler Kerbyson and redshirted guard Jackson earning spots with their limited experience. Blair fills a starting role immediately. Rising freshman Dylan Wiesman saw the field sparsely this fall, with most of his reps coming as a blocker on punt team. However, Mahoney has been very pleased with Wiesman's progress during the season, praising him for a great "mean streak." Freshmen Brett Kendrick and Austin Sanders made improvements this fall, but have a ways to go before they're challenging for substantial snaps.
Here's a look at the Vols' remaining offensive tackle prospects and analysis of where Tennessee stands.
Alex Bookser | OT | Pittsburgh (Pa.)
The Pittsburgh native walked away from Rocky Top ranting and raving about Mahoney and the game day atmosphere. Bookser is likely Tennessee's best option of adding a tackle to the 2014 class. Still, it's an uphill battle.
Staying close to home is the key for the 6-foot-6, 295-pounder. IT was told Booker's mother is even hesitant to send him to Pen State, which is only a few hour drive from his backyard. The hometown Panthers have been thought of as the favorite from a long time.
However, his parents hit it off with Mahoney and feel their son would be in capable hands should he pledge to Tennessee. Mahoney is the main reason Tennessee is still in play.
The Vols are in a good strategically position with Booker, too, as he and his parents are open in saying they aren't fond of the hectic recruiting process. Tennessee likely plans to sit back and let other schools duke it out for the tackle-talent.
Bookser has officially visited Penn State and Ohio State. A trip to Pittsburgh looms.
Wrote Scout recruiting analyst Brian Dohn of Bookser: He has a nice initial punch and, as a left tackle, can protect the outside with a good (not great) kick step. He moves well laterally, and he has a good reach. He also sits back in his stance well and is patient.
Ben Knox | OT | Deland (Fla.)
Officially earning that Vols offer Saturday, Knox has been in constant contact with Mahoney and his cousin, Vols running back Marlin Lane. Tennessee indeed has lots of ground to make up and the timing of the offer doesn't help, either.
The dead period began Sunday night and the Vols won't be able to visit or contact Knox before it ends. Knox told IT that Mahoney promised the 6-foot-6, 260-pound lineman that he plans on sticking with him and getting to know him over the phone for the next four weeks. Knox plans on announcing Jan. 30, so the Vols will have to hustle.
Knox has very little knowledge of the Tennessee program and didn't recognize the name "Butch Jones." Lane is the best thing the Vols have going for them. Knox said Lane has been "talking up the Vols" every time they talk. Knox says playing with his cousin sounds appealing.
Louisville and South Florida are the Vols' biggest competition, as Knox raved about both Charlie Strong and Willie Taggart. Knox has officially visited North Carolina State and USF and plans to drop by Kentucky and Louisville in January. Miami is also in the picture.
Knox is still contemplating taking a visit to Knoxville.
Wrote Scout analyst Jamie Newberg: Knox has the size at 6-foot-5, athleticism and long arms that you look for in an offensive tackle. He has very good feet and moves laterally very well in pass protection. He bends well for big guy and comes off the ball low. Can sometimes play to high on second level. Will only get better as a run blocker as he continues to develop strength in upper and lower body. Likes to compete, works to finish blocks and run feet.
Derrick Kelly | OT | Havana (Fla.)
While Kelly is not bitter that Tennessee offered so late – as all of his big offers have come within the last two weeks – he could be the biggest stretch for the Vols.
Like Knox, Kelly has little knowledge of the Tennessee program. But the largest obstacle for the Vols will be luring the 6-foot-6, 285-pounder out of his home state, like Bookser.
Kelly lists staying close to home as his top priority and grew up a "die-hard" Florida State fan. LSU seems to have the best shot at getting Kelly to pledge out of state.
Kelly officially visited Florida and plans to trip to LSU later in January.
Dontavius Blair | OT | Anniston (Ala.)
Without the verbal from Blair, Mahoney would not be so calm in searching for another tackle in this 2014 class. Blair is the only true tackle in the class and possesses the length, size and foot work to play on the edge in Tennessee's up-tempo system.
Blair committed back on Oct. 8 and has claims to be firmly pledged since. He visited Tennessee on June 24 and again for the Vols' homecoming game against Auburn.
Ray Raulerson | OT | Tampa (Fla.)
Arriving early would benefit Raulerson greatly. He has a good frame, sound fundamentals and plays with a nasty streak, but needs to add size and strength.
Raulerson has been committed since summer and soaked in the Tennessee-Auburn game.
Coleman Thomas | C | Max Meadows (Va.)
Thomas expects to be a part of the team come Jan. 6.
The No. 3 center in the 2014 class according to Scout, Thomas bolsters more than the Vols depth. It will be hard for Tennessee to sign a more well-rounded student-athlete. Thomas carries a 3.2 GPA, averaged 15.8 points and 10 rebounds for his basketball team, and hit .503 with eight home runs and 43 RBIs last season in baseball.
Orlando Brown | OT | Suwanee (Ga.)
Brown was on hand for the Vols' Orange & White game and saw his first real game when the Vols downed South Alabama.
Brown has the size, length and strength to play the tackle position, but questions surround his agility and footwork – essentials to blocking the edge in Tennessee's up-tempo system. He will not enroll early.
Get further educated about how the Volunteers will look this spring and fall as Joy Riddle interviews beat reporter Riley Blevins for InsideTennessee in the video below: