KNOXVILLE — Tennessee hopes it eventually looks back on Wednesday as the day that sparked the program’s resurgence.
The Volunteers jump-started their attempts to end a string of four straight losing seasons by signing what was rated as a top-five class by multiple recruiting services. Tennessee announced a class of 35 newcomers headlined by running back Jalen Hurd and receiver Josh Malone, both labeled five-star prospects by at least one service. The class features 16 other players rated as four-star prospects by multiple services.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones said that “for us to get where we need to get back to an elite level in the SEC, we have to be able to go toe to toe with anyone in the country. I felt we were able to do that this year.”
Tennessee lived up to Jones’ vow to “own our state” in recruiting. Tennessee signed five of the top six prospects in the state of Tennessee according to the 247 Composite, which takes into consideration the ratings of all the major recruiting services. Tennessee had signed just one of the state’s top six prospects in 2013 and landed just one of the state’s top 24 recruits in 2012.
Tennessee’s also benefited from having several top prospects with family connections to the program. Safety Todd Kelly Jr., linebacker Dillon Bates and all-purpose athlete Neiko Creamer are sons of former Vols. The class also includes twin brothers Elliot and Evan Berry, whose older brother is Kansas City Chiefs safety and former Volunteers star Eric Berry. Wide receiver Vic Wharton has an uncle who played basketball at Tennessee.
National rankings: Rivals: No. 5. Scout: No. 4.
Best in class: Malone, a 6-foot-3 receiver from Gallatin (Tenn.) Station Camp, is rated as the nation’s No. 27 overall prospect by Rivals. He should provide an immediate boost for an offense that lacked playmakers last season.
Best of the rest: Hurd, Bates, Kelly, DE Dewayne Hendrix, TE Daniel Helm, DE Derek Barnett, RB Derrell Scott, DB D’Andre Payne, DB Rashaan Gaulden and DT Michael Sawyers are all rated among the nation’s top 250 prospects by Rivals.
Late addition: Sawyers, who lives in Nashville, Tenn., withdrew his verbal commitment to Vanderbilt after Penn State hired away former Commodores coach James Franklin. Sawyers visited Tennessee last weekend and signed with the Vols on Wednesday.
One that got away: DE Cory Thomas made a Signing Day switch to Mississippi State after verbally committing to Tennessee.