Luginbill believes on-field performance secured potential top-10 class for Vols

Photo courtesy of / Tennessee midyear enrollee Nico Iamaleava, a five-star quarterback from Downey, California, is taking part in Orange Bowl practices with the Volunteers in Knoxville.

Nestled between Tennessee's 10-2 regular season and the program's first Orange Bowl berth in a quarter century will be Wednesday's start to college football's early signing period.

The Volunteers haven't disappointed on this front, either.

Tennessee entered this week with the nation's No. 9 class of commitments, according to the team rankings, with five-star quarterback Nico Iamaleava headlining the 24 who have committed and the 14 who already have participated in bowl practices or will be soon.

"Across the board, I think you have to be pretty impressed," recruiting analyst Ryan Callahan said. "Obviously Nico Iamaleava is the star of this class as the five-star quarterback from California, and he's been the star for almost nine months. This class will largely be defined by what his career looks like, but what Tennessee has done on defense is pretty impressive, too.

"It's probably what they've done best outside of quarterback, because they are upgrading the talent at all three levels."

The Vols have not finished with a top-10 national class since winding up fourth in 2015 with a crop headed by defensive linemen Kahlil McKenzie, Kyle Phillips and Shy Tuttle, offensive linemen Drew Richmond and Jack Jones, running back Alvin Kamara and receiver Preston Williams.

ESPN national recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill said Monday afternoon that the success of the Vols this autumn helped cement this class.

"The best part of what Tennessee has done is the recruitment of the players who had been committed for a long time, and that includes Nico," Luginbill said. "He's a guy who's been carrying the flag and helping recruit, and when they got hot in recruiting, they carried it over into on-field performance. What that does is really aid against guys thinking about other options.

"When the product is good on the field, the players feel like they made the right choice and that things are going in the right direction, so they become even more committed. I think their on-field performance is what secured this class, which started off good, but then they exceeded expectations on the field."

Of Tennessee's 12 commitments who have earned four-star status, eight are on defense. That includes three ranked among the nation's top-100 prospects -- defensive lineman Daevin Hobbs (No. 51) of Concord, North Carolina, and edge rushers Chandavian Bradley (No. 71) of Platte City, Missouri, and Caleb Herring (No. 75) of Murfreesboro Riverdale.

"They just beat out Alabama for Arion Carter, the linebacker out of Smyrna, and I really like the cornerbacks they have coming in," Callahan said. "I think it will be the best group of cornerbacks Tennessee has signed in easily more than a decade."

Herring and Carter are already in Knoxville, as are cornerbacks Jordan Matthews of Baton Rouge, Rickey Gibson of Trussville, Alabama, and Cristian Conyer of Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Tennessee did not sign a single top-10 prospect from within the state when the 2022 cycle ended this past February, but the Vols have the top two in the 2023 cycle with Herring and Carter. When it comes to the 2024 class, the Vols have already made in-state inroads with commitments from Lipscomb Academy cornerback Kaleb Beasley and McCallie School defensive lineman Carson Gentle.

Gentle is among four Chattanooga-area players ranked among the state's top-20 players in the 2024 class, joining the athlete trio of Bradley Central's Marcus Goree Jr., Baylor's Amari Jefferson, and Boo Carter, who played this past season at Chattanooga Christian but is now enrolled at Brainerd.

"Boo Carter and Marcus Goree are two of the guys in particular that Tennessee is in good shape with early," Callahan said, "and I think Amari Jefferson has moved up Tennessee's board, too, so he'll be one to watch as well."

The Vols had 25 commitments entering this past weekend but lost Sylvester Smith, a four-star safety from Munford, Alabama, who switched his pledge to Auburn.

Karic chooses Vols

Former Texas offensive tackle Andrej Karic announced Monday afternoon that he will be transferring to Tennessee.

The 6-foot-5, 306-pounder from Southlake, Texas, has played in 26 career games for the Longhorns and has made two starts. He played in all 12 games this season as a backup and will have two years of eligibility with the Vols.

Phillips in portal

Vols freshman defensive tackle Jordan Phillips has entered the transfer portal after playing in three games this year against Ball State, Akron and Vanderbilt and tallying one tackle. The 6-2, 295-pounder from Orlando is the second 2022 signee to enter the portal, joining running back Justin Williams-Thomas.

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