If the Vols are unsuccessful it's not from a lack of effort. They have contended throughout a long recruiting campaign against a plethora of perennial powers for a pack of prized defensive prospects, but have yet to land a projected impact talent — heretofore known as a four- or five-star player.
Tennessee will try again this weekend with a group that features No. 8 ranked strong-side linebacker E.J. Abrams-Ward, of Thomasville, N.C., and No. 16 ranked defensive end Keith Wells of Gainesville, Ga. The Vols are also slated to entertain Kentucky commitment Willie Bohannon, a 6-3, 240-pound defensive end of Prichard, Ala.
The big man on offense is No. 9 ranked tackle Antoine McClain, who checks in at a robust 6-foot-6, 313 pounds, and has the long arms and quick feet needed to protect a quarterback's blind side. This nimble behemoth recorded 50 pancake blocks as a senior en route to earning all-state honors. He visited Clemson last week and has visits scheduled for Auburn and LSU the next two weekend, respectively.
"I would say my strengths are getting to the second level and blocking the linebackers," McClain told Scout.com. "I am good at hooking the defensive ends. My pulling and trap blocking are good. I am good at protecting the quarterback and running back."
McClain is the highest rated offensive linemen on UT's board, and several sources indicate Tennessee is the team to beat. However Auburn has been tough to top for in-state prospects and the Tigers have the last visit. On the plus side it appears Alabama, Georgia and USC have been eliminated.
Conversely, the Vols are getting Abrams-Ward's last visit in what boils down to a two-team race between UT and UNC. Abrams-Ward visited the Tar Heels last week.
At 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, Abrams-Ward has grade A size as well as a V-frame and 4.65 speed. During his career at Thomasville High School he played linebacker, tight end, fullback and even quarterback. He'll certainly get a long look at linebacker but could develop into pass rushing force at defensive end if not a hybrid rush LB.
Abrams-Ward, who had a good showing in the Carolina Shrine Bowl, also has offers from Boston College, Clemson, North Carolina State, South Carolina and Wake Forest. North Carolina has come strong in recent weeks but UT has been stronger, longer and would like to close the deal this weekend to create momentum down the stretch.
Wells, 6-5, 210, is a prospect that originally committed to Florida State before a change of heart put him back on a highly active market. He has made official visits to Auburn and Ohio State and is slated to visit Florida on Jan. 25 and Miami on Feb. 1. He as also offered by Notre Dame.
Playing defensive end as a junior Wells recorded 52 tackles with 12 sacks. He runs a 4.75, bench presses 300, squats 420 and has a 33-inch vertical. He moved to outside linebacker in a 3-4 as a senior at Gainesville High School. Named to participate in O/D All-American game in Fort Lauderdale this month, Wells was a standout.
Scout.com's Steve Robertson filed the following reports on Wells after a practice sessions for the game:
Keith Wells has an excellent burst off the ball after he gets into a cat-like four-point stance about three inches off the ground. He is very flexible, outstanding in the morning stretch, and displayed a full arsenal of moves including a great rip quick hands. Could use a little more strength in his upper body to overcome the bigger offensive linemen."
"For the second day in a row Wells claimed the top honor on the East because he was unstoppable regardless of who lined up at tackle on the left side of the line. He had great explosion and superb quickness, and none of the tackles were able to get any extension or really get a firm hand on him."
Bohannon committed to Kentucky before Christmas but reopened the process after picking up a couple of new offers.
"I am visiting Tennessee this upcoming weekend," he told Andrew Bone on Wednesday. "Then next weekend I am going to Ole Miss. Both of those schools have offered me. They offered me the week before last. Those are the only other visits I will take."
UT is a program that Bohannon has been interested in because of the intensity of the rivalry between the Vols and Alabama.
"I really just want to go see their campuses and see what each school has to offer. Kentucky offered me a lot of opportunities, but I am real interested in Tennessee."
"I like both of my offers, and I am still committed to Kentucky. I have always followed Tennessee. I don't know much about Ole Miss. I followed Tennessee because they have been rivals with Alabama. When you hear about Alabama you hear about Tennessee."
A three-star prospect with the potential to play tackle, Bohannon, who runs a 4.80, compiled 70 tackles as a sophomore with 18.5 sacks and 57 tackles as a junior with 15 sacks.
With a showcase event like the Tennessee-Ohio State basketball battle Saturday, the Vols are positioned for a productive weekend.