Yes, there's a lot to love about Tennessee's 2007 group of 32 signees. The most obvious is that it's not the UT Class of 2006 which lacked big names and had enough non-qualifiers to annex a small community college. That's not to say UT's ‘06 was without good athletes. In fact, two of the Vols' better prospects — Brent Vinson and Cody Pope — from last year's signing class are also members of this year's signing class. Vinson is perhaps the most redemptive representative of the 2006 class. The Hampton, Va., native was rated a three-star prospect when he signed with the Vols last year and a five-star receiver upon his return.
He is joined by three other five-star prospects in Eric Berry, the nation's No. 1 rated cornerback, Chris Donald, the nation's No. 2 rated strong-side linebacker, and Ben Martin, the nation's No. 3 rated defensive end. Vinson is the nation's No. 5 rated wide receiver, according to Scout.
By comparison, Tennessee's Class of 2006 had no five-star prospects, while the Vols No. 1 rated Class of 2005 had only two five-star prospects. A total of seven prospects that signed in the 22-member Class of 2006 never made it to the field for fall practice. The ‘07 class has 13 four-star prospects while the ‘06 signees had only eight four-star players. Half of those never practiced at Tennessee much less played.
On the plus side, the ‘06 class was heavy in linemen who routinely require a year in the weight room and on the training table. No one from that ‘06 group made an early impact for the Vols last fall, but a few earned playing time and several contributed on special teams. Players like Cody Pope, Walter Fisher, Ramone Johnson, Victor Thomas, Jarred Shaw, Chase Nelson, Jacques McClendon and Darris Myers will have to step up next fall to fill holes across the front lines.
Three of the most likely prospects to contribute in a hurry are JUCO stars Kenny O'Neal, DeAngelo Willingham and Nevin McKenzie. All are exception athletes with at least two years maturity beyond the high school level. O'Neal started as a freshman at Florida State and could step into a starting role from day one at Tennessee given his ability to stretch a defense vertically. Willingham and McKenzie provide much needed size, speed and strength in a secondary decimated by injury and graduation.
Another positive element of Tennessee's No. 3 rated Class of 2007 is its nice mix of 11 in-state prospects with 21 prospects from 12 other states. The Tennessean provide an important sense of perceptive and an energizing jolt of state pride.
And then there's the matter of speed, regarded as a top priority every year on The Hill. The Vols have velocity aplenty with no less than a dozen prospects listed with a sub 4.5 time, including five with sub 4.4 times.
Remaining mindful that some of the players in the Class of 2007 won't qualify and others may disappoint, it's still a group with the playmakers and play-stoppers ot have a deep impact next fall.