Walter Nolen can redefine Tennessee football's recruiting class ... if Vols land him | Toppmeyer

Blake Toppmeyer
USA TODAY NETWORK

Josh Heupel’s padlock was defective.

Tennessee’s first-year coach vowed after his January hiring that he would lock down the state’s borders and retain in-state prospects. But for the first several months of his tenure, the Vols failed to win in-state recruiting battles.

Five-star quarterback Ty Simpson chose Alabama. Who could fault him? But then brothers Keaten and Destin Wade drove the knife in deeper when the four-star prospects committed to Kentucky. And four-star running back Dallan Hayden, whose father, Aaron, played for the Vols, stiffed Tennessee for Ohio State.

That’s what made Monday’s commitment from wide receiver Cameron Miller of Memphis Academy of Health Sciences so noteworthy. He became just the second four-star prospect to commit to Tennessee’s 2022 recruiting class and also the second in-state prospect to join the class.

Miller's commitment followed an interesting recruiting development Friday, when five-star defensive tackle Walter Nolen from St. Benedict in Cordova named Tennessee among his five finalists. Nolen is the nation’s No. 3 overall prospect.

A commitment from Nolen would change the complexion of a class that ranks 37th nationally and 12th in the SEC in the 247Sports Composite. The Vols haven’t signed a class that ranked outside the top 25 nationally since 2008, which was Phillip Fulmer’s final recruiting class.

Nolen’s commitment would give UT’s rating a bump. More importantly, a commitment from such a highly ranked prospect would signal fellow recruits that Tennessee might be worth a look.

The Vols have made up ground on the 6-foot-4, 300-pound prospect. They weren’t included among the top eight schools Nolen released in April, but they joined Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Michigan in his final five.

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Nolen twice made unofficial visits to Tennessee in June, according to GoVols247. He’s also visited his other four finalist schools, either on official or unofficial visits.

Defensive line coach Rodney Garner is leading UT’s recruiting effort on Nolen. A veteran SEC assistant, Garner showed his recruiting chops during his first stint at Tennessee in the 1990s.

There’s no reward for finishing second, third or fourth in a recruiting battle. You might as well finish 50th. And this feels like another setup for sorrow for Tennessee, like when Simpson made the Vols a finalist, only to pick a rival.

But what if the Vols pull off the improbable and land Nolen? It would change the narrative that Heupel is struggling as a recruiter.

Heupel faces challenges in assembling this class. Namely, he’s up against an NCAA investigation into allegations of recruiting malfeasance carried about by the previous Tennessee coaching staff. The threat of NCAA penalties is a dark cloud that continues to hover above UT.

Plus, Heupel’s hire from Central Florida required him to establish a rapport with prospects and coaches with whom he did not have a prior relationship.

Expecting the 2022 class to match the lofty rankings of some past Tennessee recruiting hauls is unrealistic.

But the class can’t be a bust, either, especially not after several of the top prospects from Jeremy Pruitt’s final signing class are no longer part of the program.

Three of the top-rated prospects who signed with Tennessee in December – Dylan Brooks, Cody Brown and KaTron Evans – were granted a release from their national letters of intent.

And Heupel dismissed quarterback Kaidon Salter, another four-star December signee, in June after a pair of off-the-field incidents.

Those defections downgraded the 2021 signing class to a mediocre level.

Say what you will about former coach Butch Jones, but he recruited Tennessee pretty well, with a few notable misses (i.e. Tee Higgins). Three times in five years, Jones signed the top-ranked in-state prospect, and he twice signed the state’s No. 2 prospect.

Pruitt had more modest success recruiting Tennessee. His signing of Key Lawrence and Omari Thomas in the 2020 recruiting class marked the only time he landed either the state’s No. 1 or No. 2 prospect.

Tennessee's high school talent base is improving. Nolen is a prime example. He's the seventh in-state prospect with a five-star rating since 2015.

But that improving talent level only helps the Vols if top in-state prospects consider UT a viable option.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.