KNOXVILLE — When prized linebacker Quay Walker grabbed a Tennessee hat off the table in front of him during a ceremony late Wednesday morning at Crisp County High School in south Georgia, it seemed for a moment that national signing day was about to take a monumental turn for the better as far as the Volunteers were concerned.
Then Walker tossed the hat to the side and exchanged it for a Georgia Bulldogs cap.
Tennessee's new coaching staff shot for the stars leading up to the first Wednesday in February and came within a hat flip of landing a few. When the dust settled on Jeremy Pruitt's first traditional signing day as Tennessee's coach, there were some misses that stung — like Walker — but also a class that ranked in the top 25 nationally.
"These guys are going to lay the foundation for the next four to five years," Pruitt said. "These are the guys that wanted to be a part of what we're trying to get done."
The Vols officially added six players to their signing class Wednesday and looked likely to announce two more in the coming days. That includes Brainerd High School defensive back Joseph Norwood, who appeared poised to join the Vols as a "blueshirt," meaning he would initially walk on before accepting a scholarship that would count against Tennessee's limit for the 2019 class.relatedarticlethumbfacebook
Headlining Wednesday's group of signees was four-star linebacker J.J. Peterson of Colquitt County High School in Moultrie, Ga., who is considered one of the top 50 players in the nation by 247Sports.com.
"He's a guy that just about every defensive coach we have, whether we were at the same school or not, recruited at some point," said Tennessee defensive coordinator Kevin Sherrer, who coached at Georgia in 2017. "That's what kind of player he is and what he has the potential to be."
Pruitt had been Peterson's primary recruiter while serving as the defensive coordinator at Alabama, and the Vols were able to hold off the Crimson Tide to land him after Peterson committed to Tennessee in early January.
"He has a very unique skill at linebacker and can actually play all four positions, inside or outside," Pruitt said. "He's a guy that can (play man-to-man pass defense) on third down, he can rush the quarterback, but he's a guy that can make plays in space also."
In the group of players Tennessee wanted who decided to sign elsewhere were Walker, star receiver Jacob Copeland from Florida and several of the nation's top cornerbacks. During an afternoon news conference, Pruitt bristled at the idea of cornerback being a position of need for the Vols. Tennessee loses its top four corners from the 2017 roster, and the Vols missed on most of their high-profile targets at the position Wednesday.
The new early signing period was Dec. 20-22, but Wednesday was the start of the traditional signing period — and not necessarily the finish. Teams are permitted to sign 25 players per signing class, which leaves the Vols with at least three open slots, and Pruitt said they'll likely continue adding to the 2018 class.
"The one thing that we want to do with this class is make sure that the guys we brought in fit the criteria that we were looking for in each position," Pruitt said. "If we felt like they didn't fit that, we weren't in a hurry just to make sure we filled up spots. Of course guys will become available as the spring goes."
Previous Tennessee coach Butch Jones' first signing class with the Vols in 2013 ranked 25th nationally, according to 247Sports. Though that class was 11th in the Southeastern Conference, it produced stars such as Josh Dobbs, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cam Sutton as well as consistent role players including Brett Kendrick, Josh Smith and Corey Vereen.
By comparison, Pruitt's first class was ranked 20th at the end of Wednesday.
Tennessee's entire coaching staff attended a signing day celebration ceremony at the Tennessee Theatre in downtown Knoxville on Wednesday evening. The group will appear at similar events in Memphis and Nashville today.
Each assistant introduced himself to an audience of several hundred and talked about the players in the signing class they recruited. The event had a pep rally feel to it as coaches talked about their excitement to be at Tennessee.
The assistants were upbeat but also appeared exhausted. After hustling to cobble together a foundation signing class, their minds were already on the 2019 class and perhaps on a few of the elite players they barely missed adding Wednesday.
"I know some of you probably sat there today and you're thinking, 'What if?'" Pruitt said to the audience. "Don't think that anymore, because next year on signing day, we're going to be up there at the very top."
Pruitt implied at least a couple of Tennessee's returning offensive linemen will be unavailable for spring practice. There are 13 listed on the roster, but he said only 11 are healthy enough for practice.
Chance Hall and K'Rojhn Calbert missed the 2017 season with injuries that required surgeries.
"We'd like to have 16 to 18 offensive lineman on scholarship," Pruitt said.
Rico Dozier, a 5-foot-9 athlete from McCallie School, will join Tennessee as a preferred walk-on. ... Pruitt dodged a question Wednesday about Tennessee's interest in a graduate transfer quarterback. Wagner's Alex Thomson signed with Marshall on Wednesday after Tennessee had reportedly expressed interest in him ... Tennessee's spring game is set for 2 p.m. on April 21.
Contact David Cobb at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DavidWCobb and on Facebook at facebook.com/volsupdate.
This story was updated Feb. 7, 2018, at 11:59 p.m.