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Tennessee’s Recruiting Strikeouts Were Disappointing, But Not Concerning

Tennessee Recruiting Struck Over The Weekend. But They Shouldn’t Panic At All.

Over the weekend, two high-profile class of 2022 quarterback recruits announced their destinations, and neither one would end up committing to Tennessee. Five-star Ty Simpson is from the state of Tennessee and four-star Sam Horn reportedly grew up a Tennessee fan, but neither of those advantages was enough to bring either of them to Knoxville. Tennessee was left behind for two other SEC schools and now point their attention to their next target.

There’s no question about it, losing out on both quarterbacks is disappointing for Tennessee. But, for several reasons, the weekend is not indicative of the future and doesn’t pose any need to raise the alarms. It’s a microcosm of where the program was, and not is.

Consider the current collection of talent in Tennessee’s quarterback room, the most recent quarterback success under Heupel, and a better understanding of the Jeremy-Pruitt-Era fallout. That’s where the answers are found.

Untapped Potential

The immediate future of the position at Tennessee is not concerning, knowing what the roster already has and the coaching it will get down the road. All eyes are specifically on three quarterbacks heading into next year: Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker, sophomore Harrison Bailey, and incoming freshman Kaidon Salter.

But when you look just beyond the upcoming year to 2022, there are many ways that Tennessee could be heading into the season. Bailey or Salter could be heading into their second full season as a starter. Maybe one of them could be gearing up to take the reigns fully after sharing time the year before. 

But either way, the point is, both of these quarterbacks on the roster are still very young and should have great amounts of potential to be tapped into.

Bailey took in-game snaps in six out of Tennessee’s ten games last season, but only recorded more than ten attempts on two occasions at the end of the year. It’s safe to say that Bailey’s initial start to his career was likely derailed to a degree from a coaching staff who seemed to be indecisive on almost every decision. But dating back to Bailey’s time in high school, he was a four-star prospect, the third-ranked pro-style quarterback in the nation according to 247Sports, and threw for the fourth-most passing yards in Georgia high school history.

Many experts believed that Bailey was a developmental step away from establishing himself as a quality college quarterback, but that development was hardly seen. There is still so much room to improve and develop.

As for Salter, he entered campus this offseason and instantly has the opportunity and ability to set himself apart with the new coaching staff. The No. 3 dual-threat recruit in the nation has the mindset that the ceiling is simply glass.

Being the highest-ranked quarterback prospect in the state of Texas for his class, Salter has already turned heads as he carved up defenses in the Texas state playoffs, showing just a tease of what he can do with the right coaching staff in college.

While losing out on both Simpson and Horn in the early stages of the 2022 class was disappointing, Tennessee has no reason to be concerned about the immediate future of the position. Looking at Bailey and Salter from the 2020 and 2021 classes respectively, Tennessee has the future on campus right now. Plus, the 2022 recruiting season has only just begun, and there’s no telling who else Josh Heupel and Co. have their eyes on.

Sustained Success

Speaking of Heupel, his recent success would indicate that he is not a coach who desperately needs the highest level of talent to perform. In his final year at UCF, which was considered underwhelming by most, Heupel developed one of the best quarterbacks in college football.

Dillon Gabriel, formerly a three-star recruit from Hawaii, was ranked as the 27th best pro-style quarterback in the 2019 class. So little was known about Gabriel that he doesn’t even have a filled-in high school scouting report on 247Sports.

But by the end of his sophomore year under Heupel at UCF, Gabriel had turned into a powerhouse. In 2019, he threw for the fifth-most passing yards in college football (3570), the fourth-most touchdown passes in college football (32), and was ranked at No. 16 in terms of passing efficiency. 

Heupel and now-UT quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle had incredible success developing Gabriel. UT certainly won’t want every success story of theirs to be one of overperforming in the next few years, but Gabriel’s development shows just how in tune Heupel and Halzle are with the position. 

If Gabriel could go from a three-star recruit in Hawaii to arguably a Top-5 quarterback while playing at UCF in just two years, the door to success should be wide open for the guys Tennessee already has on the roster.

The Pruitt-Era Fallout Continues

It’s no surprise that Simpson was high on Jeremy Pruitt’s recruiting wishlist, and he seemed to be a coach that Simpson was high on in return.

In an interview with Sports Illustrated VR2 from November, Simpson talked about having been to many Tennessee games and how much he enjoyed the atmosphere around campus and the city of Knoxville. But he also talked about what exactly he liked that Pruitt brought to the table.

“Coach Pruitt is constantly grinding,” Simpson told SI. “He’s trying to find answers in-between ball games and that’s what I like about him.”

So knowing that the Pruitt administration was the one who primarily recruited and built a relationship with Simpson for so long, clearly, a large wrench was thrown in the mix just about a month before he would make his final decision. Hardly any time to establish a meaningful and working relationship with a new head coach, especially in comparison to the other schools he was interested in that did not go through overwhelming changes.

When Pruitt was fired by Tennessee, followed by his assistants in the coming days, Tennessee entered a completely new era in the program. Not only did they have a new football staff to assemble, but they would first have to find a brand new athletic director after the departure of Phillip Fulmer. 

So, Simpson is an example of the type of recruit here in the early stages of the 2022 class that is inevitably going to be tough for Heupel to bring in. The guys that had a strong relationship with the previous staff, but not enough time to get to know the new one.

The other player in the news is Sam Horn, who committed to Missouri on Sunday after reportedly growing up a longtime fan of Tennessee.

Again, it seems like Horn went away from the Vols due to his experience with the Pruitt administration, but oppositely.

Multiple reports over the last year have suggested that Horn was not made to be a priority by the former Tennessee staff, even though an offer was extended by Pruitt. But regardless of the reported interest by Tennessee, it still factored into Horn choosing Missouri.

Jeremy Pruitts’ administration’s involvement in the early stages of Heupel’s 2022 class is not only still present but also playing a contributing role in some of the early commitments.

There are likely other recruits out there like Simpson who had a good connection with Pruitts’ staff and are considering Tennessee less now that he isn’t there.

There likely are also recruits similar to Horn, who may not have been recruited heavily by the previous staff, but found a relationship with a coach at another school, regardless of their childhood interests.

The point is, the beginning of the 2022 cycle is going to be tough for Tennessee. Players are committing after Tennessee’s staff has been together for only a few weeks at most. There’s not much you can do about those players, and it’s something every school deals with during a transition.

Simpson and Horn’s non-commitment were much more likely due to the continued fallout of the Pruitt-era, as opposed to early criticism of Heupel’s new staff.

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