Stockpiling athleticism, length and size along the offensive front each recruiting cycle is not an option in the Southeastern Conference...it's a necessity.
Tennessee made inroads with several of the best junior linemen in the country long before the ink was dry on the letters of intent for the 2016 class. That should prove helpful in getting these blue-chip blockers back to Rocky Top for visits.
The 2017 group is key for the Volunteers as it will have some upperclassmen in the trenches but must have players developing in the program to create competition and potentially take over starting jobs early in their collegiate careers.
That fall, guard/tackle Brett Kendrick, guard Jashon Robertson, guard Austin Sanders and center Coleman Thomas will all be entering their final season as Vols. Team 119 starters Kyler Kerbyson and Dylan Wiesman will be long gone.
Unlike the 2016 class where length and athleticism were key, stockpiling elite blockers for 2017 will be paramount no matter the position.
The most recent signees — Ryan Johnson, Nathan Niehaus and Marcus Tatum — are all 6-feet-6 or slightly longer. That type of height isn’t going to a must-have because of the aforementioned reasons. However, talents such as Venzell Boulware, Jack Jones and Drew Richmond should allow for Butch Jones & Co. to continue to pursue high upside blockers instead of plug-and-play bodies.
Here's a look at some of the names on the orange-clad recruiting board at the Anderson Training Center:
Eze’s is not yet a household name but the Nigerian transplant is quickly rocketing up recruiting boards all over the country, consistently adding scholarship offers. Eze has less than 10 months experience playing football. A coach that’s already gained his trust is VFL and new King’s Academy assistant Antonio “Tiny” Richardson. The budding Davidson Academy talent has impressive bend and unteachable length. It should just be a matter of time before Tennessee offers, as it was one of the first schools to host Eze for a junior day back in the early portion of 2015.
If being in the first to knock on the door accounts for something, Tennessee has a shot at landing the top tackle in the Peach State’s 2017 class. Long before the then-slender Gray took a snap during his junior season, Butch Jones & Co. offered a chance to play football on the Southeastern Conference level. Recruiting coordinator Robert Gillespie does work at Central Gwinnett High and went by there in January amidst trying to put the finishing touches on the 2016 class. It was a visit that the Tennessee staff hopes Gray returns, again. The talent made a couple Rocky Top trips last spring.
If that name looks familiar, it should. Jalen is the son of Reggie McKenzie, nephew of Raleigh McKenzie and brother of Kahlil McKenzie. Orange courses through Jalen’s blood and potential competitors for his signature know of this. Will Tennessee offer a scholarship? Bloodlines don’t always equal an opportunity but the lineman’s immense size and athleticism are a sight to behold. McKenzie figures to be just a matter of time before he’s worthy of a spot in a collegiate two-deep.
The 2015 TSSAA Mr. Football Division II Class A lineman of the year admits that he grew up a fan of Alabama and Tennessee and those two have the inside track on the top-ranked blocker in the Volunteer State’s 2017 class. Smith is a cerebral young man that spent time assessing the skills of Tennessee’s Chance Hall and Jack Jones when Smith saw the Vols play Georgia and Alabama last season. He’s also a driven young man as he competes daily for the memory of his late mother. Smith was one of few juniors that earned a spot at The Opening Finals in Beaverton, Oregon, last July, which gave him a taste of what it takes to block supreme athletes on the defensive line.
The Citra (Fla.) High School blocker committed Jan. 31 to Clemson but that isn’t going to stop the Tennessee staff in its pursuit of the No. 5 offensive tackle in the Sunshine State, especially since Vinson already made five unofficial visits to Rocky Top in 2015. The Vols staff flipped three eventual signees away from opposing schools in the 2016 class and has enough of a relationship built with Vinson to make it happen. Next winter is shaping up to be a battle ground between the two orange-clad programs as four-star quarterback Hunter Johnson was a one-time Tennessee commit, Vinson was considered by some to be a Tennessee lean, sources suggest four-star wide receiver Tee Higgins backed off his Tennessee commitment because of heavy interest from Clemson and Knoxville-based pass catcher Amari Rodger is expected to verbal to the Tigers on Sunday. Vinson possesses enough size and athleticism to play a number of positions along the offensive front as he’s a lean 285 pounds. He also has a decade’s experience wrestling and boxes to improve his hand violence.