Vols produce top-15 national class despite in-state 'noise'

Tennessee class highlighted by seven 4-star signees

Photo courtesy of 247Sports.com / Defensive lineman Tyre West of Tifton, Georgia, committed and signed with Tennessee on Wednesday, becoming the highest-rated signee of the early period for the Volunteers.

Tennessee landed another top-20 class of early college football signees Wednesday, and this one seems like it will stick.

Roughly 11 months after the Volunteers lost multiple early signees due to the firing of Jeremy Pruitt amid a university investigation into rules violations, which resulted in the hiring of Josh Heupel as his successor, Tennessee signed 20 players in a surprisingly strong class given the program's recent turbulence. The Vols as of Wednesday night had Rivals.com's No. 11 class nationally and 247Sports.com's No. 13 class.

"It's a great day for Tennessee football and the future of Tennessee football," Heupel said in a news conference. "When we got here, there was a lot of uncertainty about what Tennessee football was going to look like in the future, but this staff has steadied the ship in who they are. It has shown through, and it's why the culture of Tennessee football has changed and why the trajectory of Tennessee football has changed.

"We added a lot of athleticism on both sides. I love this group."

(READ MORE: National signing day: Get to know the newest Tennessee Volunteers)

The Vols had plenty of Southeastern Conference company in the recruiting rankings, with Texas A&M, Alabama and Georgia comprising 247Sports.com's top three spots nationally. The next wave had Kentucky 11th, Missouri 12th, the Vols and then Auburn 14th.

Tennessee landed seven four-star signees, including three who entered Wednesday having yet to publicly declare to the Vols - defensive lineman Tyre West of Tifton, Georgia, running back Justin Williams of Dallas, Georgia, and edge rusher James Pearce of Charlotte. Vols running backs coach Jerry Mack said that Williams is already bigger than sophomore Jabari Small and freshman Jaylen Wright.

"He will bring a power and speed combination," Mack said in an interview on the university's website. "When you look at Justin's physical attributes and his size - he will automatically step in the room and be one of the most powerful backs that we have. Tennessee has a long tradition of getting great backs out of the state of Georgia, and this is going to continue that tradition."

Williams is Tennessee's highest-rated prep running back signee since Eric Gray in 2019 and will be a mid-year enrollee, with Mack adding, "He's not going to be a fish out of water in fall camp."

West wound up being Tennessee's highest-rated signee, checking in at No. 111 nationally on the 247Sports composite rankings. He topped offensive lineman Addison Nichols of Greater Atlanta Christian, who is No. 123 and earned rave reviews Wednesday from Vols offensive coordinator Alex Golesh.

"Addison is really aggressive in the run game and is really good in the pass game," Golesh said. "He's really about as ready of an offensive lineman as you'll find in terms of mentally and physically being committed to prepare to play. He comes from a great program at GAC and has won a ton of football games."

Another four-star signee is quarterback Tayven Jackson of Greenwood, Indiana. The 6-foot-4, 198-pounder committed to the Vols in late April.

"The first thing Tayven is going to bring is a winning attitude," Tennessee quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle said. "He's won two straight state championships and hasn't lost a football game in two years."

One member of Tennessee's class, three-star defensive lineman Jordan Phillips of Orlando, is already enrolled in Knoxville and going through on-campus workouts for the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30. Defensive line coach Rodney Garner said that Phillips has practiced twice.

"He'll probably get about eight practices here before we report to Nashville, and I think that will pay dividends," Garner said.

Heupel's first early signing class did not contain a single Volunteer State top-10 prospect and only one in the top-20, matching the total attained by Memphis and Vanderbilt. Nearly half of the class hails from Georgia, but Heupel wants to greatly enhance the recruiting success in future years within state lines.

"With this recruiting cycle in particular, that was the biggest hurdle for us to overcome," Heupel said. "The players inside this state heard all of the noise for the two-and-a-half months before I got here and all the noise previously as well. With COVID, we didn't get them on campus right away, so in some ways, I think it was harder in-state than out of state this year a little bit."

A unique combo

Running back signee Dylan Sampson of Baton Rouge apparently has a grade point average that's higher than his 40-yard dash time, which has been officially clocked at 4.32 seconds.

"I'm not sure I've had that before," Heupel said. "That's a rare combination right there. He's just super intelligent and bright, and he's got an engaging personality."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.