Tennessee Vols lining up juco recruits ready to help quickly

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KNOXVILLE - Help is on the way for the University of Tennessee football program.

Some of it will need to help sooner than the rest.

Through the 2014 recruiting class, the first full one for first-year coach Butch Jones and his staff, the Volunteers will overhaul more than a third of the roster, so it was necessary for them to comb the junior college ranks for players who were more ready to play immediately than those making the jump from high school.

The Vols' current group of 31 commitments includes four recruits ranked in the top 27 of 247sports.com's rankings for junior college prospects.

"As a juco player, you obviously want to learn from your mistakes," Trinity Valley (Texas) Community College linebacker Chris Weatherd told the Times Free Press this past week. "You go in and handle your business at the college you're at, and when somebody calls and needs your help, you should be able to get there and help right away. That's how I went at it.

"[Tennessee] called me up, and obviously they need help at linebacker because they're losing some, so it'd be awesome for me to go in there and contribute right away and make a big impact."

Weatherd, Garden City (Kan.) Community College offensive tackle Dontavius Blair, Feather River (Calif.) College receiver Lavon Pearson and Georgia Military College defensive end DaVonte Lambert are all four-star prospects according to both 247sports.com and Rivals.com.

All four play positions where Tennessee clearly needs to add depth, upgrade the talent or both.

"When you're recruiting the junior college ranks," Jones said, "obviously the profile doesn't change: the character, the competitiveness, the position specifics, the measurables. But you look for an individual who has a little more experience, maybe a little older, a little more maturity and an opportunity to help your team immediately.

"Each year is different. The way your roster is set up in terms of depth and experience, I think that really plays a hand. Each year's a different year, and what you're looking for and your particular needs."

In the three classes he signed at Cincinnati, Jones landed seven junior college players, most notably former Vols signee and current New England Patriots receiver Kenbrell Thompkins and linebacker Greg Blair, the Bearcats' leading tackler in 2012.

The two juco players Jones signed at Tennessee this year -- cornerback Riyahd Jones and tight end Woody Quinn -- have yet to make an impact this season, though Jones was sidelined for a while with a calf problem.

For next season, Tennessee is losing five senior linebackers and possibly a sixth, if junior A.J. Johnson elects to enter the NFL draft. The Vols lose six senior defensive linemen and badly need to upgrade the personnel there. The entire offensive line is expected to move on.

Lambert, Blair and Pearson are expected to arrive in January and go through spring practice.

"What bonded me was it was family," said the 6-foot-3, 275-pound Lambert, who committed to the Vols in August over scholarship offers from Georgia, Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Miami and others. "They basically taught me about family and football. Most schools didn't really present the family part to me about football and being successful and everything.

"When I went up to Tennessee, the coaches and players just talked me to be about [being] VFL, a Vol for Life, so it's kind of basically a family forever. That's kind of something that I'm really basing my decision on, is family."

The 6-1, 180-pound Pearson, who committed after Tennessee upset South Carolina last month, drew scholarship offers only from Illinois and Utah, but he's actually the highest rated of the Vols' four junior college commitments and has a whopping 91 catches for 1,059 yards and 12 touchdowns in nine games this season.

Blair, expected to fill one of the vacated starting spots in the Vols' offensive line, had a scholarship offer list that included Texas A&M, Ohio State, Florida State, Georgia, Auburn, Oklahoma and Southern California.

Three months after he committed to Tennessee in May, the 6-4, 220-pound Weatherd received an offer from Texas A&M, but he's twice since made the 12-hour drive from Athens, Texas, to Knoxville to attend Tennessee games.

"When [defensive coordinator John] Jancek called me and told me the situation, it sounded really good to me," Weatherd said. "They're losing six linebackers this year -- graduating six linebackers this year -- and he told me that I would be able to come in and get a starting role if I worked my butt off and learned the plays and know the system.

"The other thing is is Tennessee is obviously close to the bottom, and from where they used to be to now's a big drop. I feel I can come in and make things better and lead the team and the defense, at least, and help Tennessee get back to the top."

Weatherd said he fell just short of having enough hours to enroll early at Tennessee, but he'll make monthly trips to Knoxville from now until he moves to campus next summer. Like the rest of the recruiting class, he's watched Tennessee games on Saturdays and seen that the Vols need help and thought about how he could be part of that.

"I can see that plain as day," Weatherd said. "I can play in space. I can run sideline to sideline. I'm a ballhawk, or that's what I was always called in high school, because everywhere the ball was I was. If it wasn't making a play, I was right next to the ball."

Weatherd and Lambert both believe Jones can get Tennessee back on track despite some first-year bumps and bruises.

"When I first seen Coach Jones, I knew right then that he was the guy that I was going to go to and be a part of," Lambert said. "When I first shook his hand, Coach Jones, he has a tight, firm grip to be small, and I just kind of laughed when I shook his hand. It's kind of shocking to see a coach, that when you first see him, you smile.

"Most coaches, when you see them, you don't smile. You'll be like, 'Hey, how you doing, Coach? How's such-and-such?' With Coach Jones, it's like I really knew him as soon as I met him."

Added Weatherd: "I feel like Coach Jones understands that you need bigger and faster players, smarter players, than what was at Tennessee at that moment. I feel like he has a good plan. I feel like he has the right attitude about it and a great staff that are helping him go through it.

"Hopefully by 2015, we'll be somewhere where nobody else thought we would be."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com