The Vols were one of only 7 schools to sign a Parade All-American QB, and the coaching staff got it done despite the fact that Casey Clausen, UT's current starter at QB, will be only a junior in 2002. Vol signee James Banks was one of the nation's finest run-pass combo QB prospects. The Gatorade Player of the Year in Indiana, Banks also turned heads by winning the "Wide Receiver Skills" Competition at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, a high school all-star football game played in San Antonio in early January. Banks, a superior athlete, has been compared to Donovan McNabb by those who have evaluated his film. With his speed, size, and soft hands, Banks will be one of the best 11 offensive players on Tennessee's team in the near future, even if he isn't starting at QB.
Running Back: A
Gerald Riggs, Jr became the 4th Parade AA running back signed by the Vols in only two years. Riggs, who was likely the nation's best high school running back as a JUNIOR at Chattanooga Red Bank, has the size, power and speed (6-0, 220, 4.4) to be another in the long line of NFL-caliber tailbacks in Knoxville. His father, Gerald Sr, starred in the NFL for the Falcons and Redskins, and while he didn't push his son to play football, it was destined that the younger Gerald would someday showcase his talent at a big college football school like Tennessee. In addition to Riggs, the Vols added another need: a big fullback (6-2, 240-pound Ruben Mayes from Memphis Ridgeway). Mayes was ranked as highly as the #8 FB prospect in the country.
Wide Receiver: B
Top-5 national Athlete prospect Jason Allen figures to be a Josh Reed-type WR for the Vols. The 6-2, 205-pound Allen has been clocked in the 4.3's in the forty yard dash; he was ranked among the nation's best RBs by most recruiting analysts after an extremely productive career as a high school RB in Muscle Shoals, AL. Allen's size/speed combination make him a fearsome offensive weapon, but he might also be able to help immediately in the defensive backfield. The Vols also got an early commitment from yet another superb all-around athlete, Chris Hannon of Sarasota, FL. The 6-3, 190-pound Hannon has also run a sub-4.4 forty. Though Hannon played QB for his high school as a senior, Vol coaches recruited him as a WR and they think he'll be a very good one. Some observers project signee Jonathan Wade as a WR; he excelled when lined up as a WR in drills at UT's summer camp. But I'm betting that Wade ends up as a DB.
Tight End: A
Even though UT signed JUCO transfer TE Leon Pinky in December, the Vols still inked a big prize on Signing Day in TE Aaron Kirkland from Fayetteville, NC. The 6-4, 245-pound Kirkland is a devastating blocker; and while he may be a step or two slower than Jason Witten, Kirkland has soft hands and knows how to get open as a pass-catcher, too. Pinky had a productive career in a Los Angeles, CA-area JUCO as a pass-catching TE, and should add immediate quality depth to a TE position that is finally being featured in UT's offense.
Offensive Line: A
With three Parade All-America OLs, Tennessee may well have signed one of the best offensive line classes of all time, by any school. Headliner Brandon Jefferies, a 6-5, 270-pounder out of Shelby, NC, has been called by numerous observers "the most technically sound OL ever seen in high school." Jefferies' decision to sign with UT on Signing Day made the Vols' class easily one of the top three in the nation. But Jefferies is only the beginning. Tennessee also inked two more Parade AA OLs, South Carolinian Heath Benedict (6-6, 285) and Kentucky Player of the Year Rob Smith (6-5, 305). Benedict is a prototypical Right Tackle, while Smith was rated among the Top 2 OG prospects by practically every analyst. For good measure, UT also signed massive OG Cody Douglas, a 6-6, 320-pounder out of La Marque, TX who at one time was committed to Texas A&M. Lineman Justin Harrell (6-4, 285) out of Martin, Tennessee is likely to land on the OL eventually, but he'll get a look on the DL first. How good is Harrell? Good enough to win Tennessee's 2002 Gatorade Player of the Year award, beating out Gerald Riggs.
Defensive End: A
The star power in the 2002 DL class is provided by a couple of 5-star DE signees, one high schooler from 4,000 miles away, and one JUCO who had previously signed with UT in 2000. Jonathan "J.T." Mapu from Kahuku, HI was perhaps Tennessee's biggest recruiting "miracle" of 2002. Mapu (6-3, 265) is the first Samoan Mormon from Hawaii that the Vols have ever signed. The Parade AA was rated the nation's #1 Strongside DE prospect by Rivals.com. Mondre Dickerson, who prepped at Memphis Melrose, was rated the #1 DE prospect in the JUCO ranks, and among the top 25 JUCO players overall. The 6-5, 270-pound Dickerson runs a 4.65 forty. Tennessee also inked DE prospect Jason Hall (6-3, 245), an instate product that prepped at Chattanooga's McCallie School.
Defensive Tackle: B
The Vol coaching staff signed a couple of the best DT prospects in the Southeast in Memphis Kingsbury's Laron Harris (6-3, 303), and Greg Jones (6-6, 270) out of Jonesboro, Arkansas. Tennessee also got DT prospect David Ligon, a 6-5, 270-pounder from Memphis that was coveted by the Florida Gators and had a firm offer from Notre Dame. This group of DT signees is good (especially Jones; and Harris appears to be vastly underrated) but it's not "great." UT spent a lot of time trying to land a couple of highly-regarded Texans, Marco Martin and Rodrique Wright. Both of them elected to stay in the homestate and play for Mack Brown's Longhorns. UT also made a late run at Top-5 DT Kedric Golston from Georgia; but he ended up signing with the UGA Bulldogs, as expected.
Linebacker was not a critical need for Tennessee in this signing class, but they had to make room for Omar Gaither, a cat-quick, speedy headhunter out of Charlotte, NC. Gaither, named to Tom Lemming's First-Team High School All-American squad, was dominant in the NC-SC Shrine All-Star Game. UT also struck paydirt in the last few days before Signing Day when Parys Haralson of Madison, Mississippi agreed to become a Vol. Haralson (6-2, 235), a consensus Top 100 player, will probably begin his UT career as an LB, but he has the frame and the ability to chase down QBs that might indicate he'll be a pass-rushing DE at some point down the line. The Vols also made inroads into Virginia this year, signing LB Marvin Mitchell (6-3, 230) out of Lake Taylor HS in Norfolk. Mitchell, who runs a 4.6 forty, is a good student and might even line up at TE.
Defensive Back: C+
Safety Gibril Wilson out of City College of San Francisco could very well have the biggest immediate impact of any signee in this class; he could start right away at SS, solidifying a troublesome spot for UT and instantly making the entire secondary better. The 6-1, 190-pound Wilson was a First-Team JUCO All-American and was offered by Florida, Oregon, Southern Cal, and Washington, among many others. Speedy CB Jonathan Wade out of Shreveport, LA was considered one of the 5 best cover corners in the nation by USA Today recruiting analyst Max Emfinger. Wade is a world-class sprinter and won the World Championships in the 200 meter dash with a time of 20.95 less than a year ago. He has recorded a 10.15 time in the 100 meters. Antwan Stewart from Dumfries, VA renounced his commitment to UVA and signed with Tennessee. Stewart, a RB in HS, is projected as a CB by the Vol coaching staff; he has been timed at 10.4 in the 100 meters.
UT's first public verbal of the campaign might be the most important: the Vols got James Wilhoit, the nation's finest kicker from Hendersonville, TN. Wilhoit was the only Kicker on Parade's All-American team; including Wilhoit, the Vols signed 7 of Parade Magazine's 55 All-American high school football players (more than any other school). As a senior, Wilhoit hit 18-of-20 Field Goals inside 45 yards, and 81% of his kickoffs went through the end zone. He booted a FG of 53 yards, and also had an average of 43.2 yards as his team's punter.
An extremely strong and well-balanced class; no one in the nation signed as many quality linemen as Tennessee. Coming on the heels of 2000's #2-ranked overall class, and 2001's sixth-ranked class, it is simply phenomenal that Tennessee could have signed this many of the bluest blue chips. Only the Vols, Texas, and FSU are recruiting at this level, year in and year out. The talent stockpiled in Knoxville is at an all-time high level; and victories and championships are sure to follow.
Jewel of the Class: RB Gerald Riggs, Jr.
Best Offensive Signee: OL Brandon Jefferies
Best Defensive Signee: DE J.T. Mapu
Best Special Teamer: PK James Wilhoit
Best Potential Gamebreaker: WR/Ath Jason Allen
Biggest Immediate Impact: DB Gibril Wilson
Most Underrated Recruit: DT Laron Harris
Phillip's Upset Special: DE J.T. Mapu
Phillip's Signing Day Surprise: TE Aaron Kirkland
The One That Got Away: DB A.J. Davis (N.C. State)