In what already had to be considered as the strangest offseason in Volunteers football history, the program’s attempts to put the wraps on a recruiting class have been hindered by the major winter storm that passed through the state this weekend. It also happened to be the last chance for recruits being wooed by the Vols to visit the campus.
National signing day is Wednesday.
Wide receiver Markeith Ambles, who’s being pursued by both UT and Lane Kiffin’s staff at Southern California, was one of the prospects who encountered major travel problems on his way to Knoxville from the Atlanta area.
This, after Kiffin bolted the Vols to return to Los Angeles just three weeks before signing day — and UT athletic director Mike Hamilton had to scramble to find a replacement, hiring Derek Dooley from Louisiana Tech roughly 72 hours later. Dooley still doesn’t have a full coaching staff, and probably won’t before signing day.
As of Saturday, the Vols had eight players signed — all of whom enrolled earlier this month at UT and will be available for spring practice — and an additional 14 verbal commitments.
Quarterbacks Matt Simms and Tyler Bray, offensive lineman JaWuan James, receivers Ted Meline and Matt Milton, athlete Channing Fugate and defensive ends Corey Miller and Jacques Smith already are on campus.
Simms is the son of Phil Simms and younger brother of Chris Simms, who was pursued by former Vols coach Phillip Fulmer but went to Texas instead.
James, Miller and Bray all are part of the ESPNU 150.
Smith, a product of Ooltewah in the Chattanooga area, is considered one of the top prospects in the state.
Miller is from Byrnes, S.C., and was one of the two prospects that two members of Tennessee’s Orange Pride hostess organization went to watch play, as documented by the New York Times in December. Brandon Willis, Miller’s teammate, was the other recruit embroiled in that controversy. He also was slated to enroll early but went to North Carolina instead.
The Vols lost some prospects in the wake of Kiffin’s exit — including Willis and wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins, Simms’ teammate in junior college, but the arrival of Dooley has opened some doors as well.
Instate offensive tackle James Stone, a Maplewood High School product who’s part of the ESPNU 150, is now giving the Vols serious consideration.
Tennessee also is in the mix for offensive lineman Chaz Green and safety Demar Dorsey, two highly regarded prospects from Florida.
Thanks to a new rule handed down by the Southeastern Conference, each program can sign no more than 28 players. The Vols had scholarships to give last season, meaning Dooley can back-count two signees toward that group and sign a maximum total of 30 players.
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The Vols, who have stuck with a 4-3 scheme for decades, conceivably could shift to a 3-4 defense.
Prior to taking over the Louisiana Tech program, Dooley spent the lion’s share of his coaching career as an assistant under Nick Saban, a devotee of the 3-4 scheme.
Tennessee’s 2010 roster also lends favorably to going to that configuration. The tentative linebacking corps includes five players who made starts in 2009: Nick Reveiz, Savion Frazier, Greg King, LaMarcus Thompson and Herman Lathers. Tennessee has two additional returning letter-winners in Nigel Mitchell-Thornton and Shane Reveiz, and freshmen Jerod Askew and Robert Nelson, who redshirted.
Meanwhile, the Vols are especially lean at defensive tackle. Montori Hughes and Marlon Walls are the lone returnees there who saw significant playing time in 2009. The other returning tackles — Rae Sykes, Chase Nelson and Arthur Jeffery — either have seen very little playing time or redshirted.
As of the final recruiting weekend before signing day began, the Vols had just one commitment from a defensive tackle — junior-college product John Brown.