KNOXVILLE - National signing day for football recruiting is still two months away, but it must have felt like the first Wednesday in February for Tennessee's coaching staff on Wednesday.
The Volunteers made another big splash with the commitment of highly touted receiver Josh Malone, from Station Camp High School in Gallatin just northeast of Nashville.
One of the state's top prospects, Malone, rated as a five-star recruit and ranked 20th nationally by Rivals.com, which gave him a ratings bump in its rankings update this week, picked Tennessee over Clemson, Georgia, Florida State and Ohio State and became the 33rd commitment in the Vols' 2014 class.
"After several family discussions and hours of prayer, I have decided to play football for the University of Tennessee," Malone said before putting on a Tennessee hat during a ceremony at his school that was broadcast live by NBC Sports Network and streamed live online.
"I chose Tennessee just because I felt like I had a better opportunity there. I put no emotion into it. Distance really wasn't a major factor and really proximity to the family, because I felt like this was only a decision for me. Honestly, I just had to go to the right place and my comfort level and where I felt like I'm going to succeed."
The 6-foot-3, 190-pound Malone, who will enroll at Tennessee in January, caught 71 passes for 1,404 yards and 19 touchdowns this season. Station Camp went 8-2, with one loss coming in a nationally televised game in August against Beech and five-star Tennessee tailback commitment Jalen Hurd, before losing to Hendersonville in the Class 6A second round.
Malone made his official visit to Tennessee in October for the Vols' overtime loss to Georgia.
"In August, he said he was not looking at Tennessee," Rivals.com analyst Mike Farrell said on NBC Sports Network prior to Malone's announcement. "'I'm leaving the state. I'm not gonna stay at home, and I'm looking at these other programs that have a lot more to offer me.'
"Tennessee just kept clawing away, and they kept saying, 'Listen, stay home and build something here.'"
Florida State will have a potential Heisman Trophy winner in Jameis Winston playing quarterback at least for next season and Clemson is bringing in five-star quarterback Deshaun Watson, but Malone said he saw enough from Tennessee's quarterbacks to pick the Vols.
"Honestly, I felt like the opportunity to come in early was better at Tennessee," he said. "I talked to the coaches all the time about the quarterback situation. I really felt comfortable with the guys they've got behind the ones that they played last year, Riley Ferguson and Joshua Dobbs. I just felt comfortable with that situation."
According to 247sports.com, Malone is the nation's No. 9 receiver and No. 75 overall prospect in the 2014 class.
"He doesn't do anything great. He does a lot of things very, very well." Farrell said. "There are no weaknesses in his game. I think he's a type of guy who can go across the middle. He can beat you long for touchdowns. He's got broad shoulders, so he can fill out his frame.
"I think he's just a big wide receiver that you covet these days in college football that will really bail out your quarterback quite a bit as well."
Malone's recruitment changed quite a bit a couple of weeks ago when he signed financial-aid agreements with each of his finalists. The agreements lock a recruit into a scholarship at the school with which he signs it, but the player can still go elsewhere. Only prospects enrolling early can sign them.
Once those agreements are signed, the rules change for the prospects. There are no limitations on contact between coaches, which is an advantage for the recruit. Coaches can comment on those prospects publicly when typically coaches cannot mention specific recruits by name until they sign in February or enroll.
"It didn't pick up as much as really everybody would expect," Malone said, "but honestly I felt like it was a great opportunity to really get to know the schools even better and take away all the restrictions."
Tennessee coach Butch Jones, Georgia's Mark Richt and Florida State's Jimbo Fisher all were asked about Malone last week.
Richt said at his weekly news conference he was "gun shy" in talking about an uncommitted prospect. Fisher said in a similar setting it felt "weird" and "like I'm breaking a rule" to talk about a player who hasn't signed. Jones said he's "been very cautious" in speaking publicly about recruits when asked about Malone on last week's SEC coaches' teleconference.
Richt called Malone a "dynamic player," and Fisher said he's a "difference maker," but it's Jones who landed him.
"Josh is a very talented, talented, talented young man and has a extremely bright future ahead of him," Jones said. "He's definitely a complete football player."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.