The Vols passed on all-American tailback "Touchdown" Toney Baker of Jamestown, N.C., in anticipation of signing another North Carolina native in Hardesty, who visited over UT over the weekend. However, the New Bern High School star instead committed to North Carolina shortly after returning home from Knoxville.
On Monday Memphis Briarcrest Christian School O-lineman Michael Oher, another Army All-American, announced he would sign with Ole Miss. The decision wasn't shocking given his custodial arrangement with former Mississippi point guard Sean Touhey, but it was somewhat surprising in light of recent declarations from Oher that he was leaning heavily toward UT — a position he reiterated during the week in San Antonio. Oher, who is rated No. 5 among the nation's offensive linemen, still has some academic hurdles to clear but he is also clearly one of the most imposing gridiron talents in the nation.
The loss of both Oher and Dace Richardson among elite O-line prospects places a greater premium on Chris Scott of Lovejoy, Ga. The 6-foot-5, 315-pound Scott has narrowed his choices to Tennessee and Florida and seemed conflicted by his decision which could come as late as national signing day. The Vols had hoped to land two of the three big linemen, but are now scrambling to get one more potential early impact player for the offensive front to go with standout center Josh McNeil.
Tennessee is also trying to close the deal with No. 3 wide receiver Patrick Turner of Nashville Goodpasture High School, who proved his game was no hype during practices in San Antonio last week. Turner's announcement will be broadcast live from his home on ESPN and could come sometime this week. He will choose between Tennessee and USC. Turner departed Texas on Sunday with UT holding a slight lead which should give the Vols an edge now that he has returned to Big Orange Country.
There's a long list of potential fallback prospects on Tennessee's board at tailback headed by No. 1 rated Jonathan Stewart of Olympia, Wa., who recently included Tennessee in his final three with Washington State and Oregon. However, odds are strong Stewart remains in the great northeast. Another TB possibility is non-ranked Felix Jones from Washington High School in Tulsa, Okla., who hasn't yet been offered by the Vols but may visit.
If the Vols choose not to sign a tailback, it could open the door for wide receiver Slick Shelley of Fort Smith, Ark., who caught a touchdown pass in Saturday's U.S. Army All-American Bowl. Shelley, 6-4, 180, told IT he was looking forward to his visit to Knoxville on Jan. 28. He is also considering South Carolina, Arkansas and LSU with a visit slated for Jan. 21 to Baton Rouge. He indicates he could substitute one of his two scheduled visits for one to South Carolina's campus in Columbia. UT also remains on the radar screen for No. 8 wideout O.J. Murdock of Tampa. Fla.
In some positive developments, the Vols picked up the expected commitment from defensive linemen Dan Williams of Memphis East High School over the weekend. Williams had been a Tennessee lean for a long time and will join East teammate Malcolm Rawls at Tennessee next fall.
The Vols also got a commitment from No. 2 linebacker Eugene Hayes of Madison, Fla., who visited UT last weekend. That was confirmed Sunday evening by Ryan Jordan of Scout.com.
"I talked to Geno and he committed to Tennessee," said Madison head football coach Frankie Carroll. "He just felt like it was home. He thought it was the place to be.
"They're going to give him a chance to compete as a freshman and play early. He just wanted to call me and get my blessing."
Despite the commitment to Tennessee, Hayes may still take official visits to Clemson and Florida State over the next two weekends. His academic status for next fall remains cloudy.
The biggest talent still in Tennessee's orbit is DeMarcus Granger the nation's No. 3 rated defensive lineman from Kimball High School in Dallas, Texas. The 6-foot-2, 325-pound Granger has Tennessee in his three finalists along with Arizona State and Oklahoma. He doesn't list a leader, although OU may have the inside track. Last Friday Granger confirmed to IT that he would take his last official visit to Tennessee on Jan. 28 and insisted his interest in the Vols was serious. Tennessee made up a lot of ground with Granger during Cotton Bowl practices in his home city and may have a chance to pull the upset for one of the most dominant defensive talents in the nation. It doesn't hurt that the Tennessee won't have to beat out any in-state powers for Granger's services.
Tennessee is also eagerly awaiting word on No. 1 rated safety Kenneth Phillips of Coral City High School in Miami, who just completed his official visit to Knoxville. He is slated to tour Miami's campus this weekend and choose between the Canes and Vols. Bryan Evans and Derek Pegues, the nation's No. 6 and No. 16 corners, respectively, are also still considering Tennessee.
The Vols also remain players for a trio of topflight defensive ends in No. 2 rated Ricky Jean-Francois, No. 14 Kyle Newell and No. 38 Barry Turner. They are also in the picture for DE Chad Green of Hinds Junior College in Raymond, Miss.
Tennessee's commitment total is up to 22 and could exceed 25 depending on need and availability.